Be Kind Illinois leaves bells in community to promote kindness


One of the 1,500 total bells hanging in the Champaign-Urbana area, sponsored by Be Kind Illinois.

By Rebecca Jacobs

An orange and blue bell dangles off a tree branch in Lincoln Hall’s center courtyard. Another hangs outside the Illini Union.

These are just two of the 1,500 total bells hung in the Champaign-Urbana community in the past three years by Be Kind Illinois.

Be Kind Illinois is the local chapter of Ben’s Bells. Based out of Arizona, Ben’s Bells aims “to inspire, educate and motivate people to realize the impact of intentional kindness” in a community through brightly painted bells.

“Our mission is to promote goodness in our community by spreading intentional acts of kindness,” said Alicia Pence, one of the leaders of Be Kind Illinois.

Jeannette Mare founded Ben’s Bells after her three-year-old son, Ben, passed away unexpectedly in 2002. Afterward, Mare and her family began making Ben’s Bells in backyard studios with friends as a form of therapy. They then distributed the bells throughout the community.

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“Since Ben’s death, it had been the kindness of others, strangers and friends, that had helped us begin to heal. We wanted to find a way to pass on that kindness and to help others in the process,” Mare wrote on the Ben’s Bells website.

Since then, Ben’s Bells has grown. 

Michelle Bonati, a friend of Mare, helped with Ben’s Bells in Arizona and brought the organization’s message to Champaign-Urbana when she enrolled as a doctoral student in the department of special education at the University.

“Inclusive service-learning was the focus of my research at the U of I, and Ben’s Bells provided a hands-on arts project that could be connected with the students’ curriculum,” Bonati said.

Bonati is now at the University of Sydney, but she hopes to one day introduce Ben’s Bells in Sydney and in schools in New South Wales.

“Cultivating intentional kindness and greater inclusivity are universal needs in all communities,” Bonati said. 

In Illinois, Bonati, along with the help of Dr. Stacy Dymond, Julie Pickens and Pence, created a University class associated with Ben’s Bells that would teach preservice teachers, or student teachers, in the department of education. In the class, students learn how to implement inclusive service learning in their future classrooms, as well as teach high school students about kindness.

Pence taught the eight-week course, High School Service Learning, to 14 undergraduate and graduate students earlier this semester. 

For six of those weeks, University students went in teams to art classrooms at Central, Centennial and Rantoul Township high schools. The special education preservice teachers worked with the high school students with and without disabilities to create the bells. In six weeks, the students formed the clay, painted the pieces and assembled the bells.

“One of the really cool things about Ben’s Bells is that by the time the bell gets hung out in the community, ten people have had a role working on it,” said Pickens, a Ph.D. student in Education.

Throughout the process, Pickens fired the pieces at the University ceramics department. Pickens said Tammie Rubin, assistant professor in the University ceramics department, was helpful in teaching Pickens how to fire the ceramics and assisting Be Kind Illinois with using University equipment.

“Since I’ve taught at the University, I’ve sought opportunities for engagement between Ceramics and the community,” Rubin said. “I have witnessed firsthand the invaluable experience of working with ceramics and believe in providing those experiences for others.”

In the final week, the students went out in the community to hang the bells on public property.

“They decide where in their community they think needs the most kindness or where they think it would be best to hang the bells,” Pickens said.

The bells encourage viewers to take them home on their tag: “Take it home, hang it in your yard and remember to spread kindness throughout our world.”

“I hope it makes someone say, ‘There’s someone in my community that cares about me.’ And I hope it inspires community members to go out and pass on the spirit of intentional kindness,” Pence said.

Community members can post on the Be Kind Illinois Facebook page and Ben’s Bells website about how they find the bells. One story in particular has stuck with Pickens and Pence.

Chris and Elizabeth, a couple from the Champaign-Urbana community, planted a tree in Hessel Park after they unexpectedly lost their baby during a pregnancy in August 2011. One day, they found a Ben’s Bell dangling from a branch in that tree, and the couple posted the story on the site.

The last batch of bells was distributed just before University Homecoming, but Pickens said there are still bells waiting to be found.

Rebecca can be reached at [email protected].