One Small Act

Kelly is president of Random Acts of Kindness, a club at Penn State Behrend where anonymous student members work to create a supportive campus environment.

There’s a sticky note hanging in the stairwell of the Reed Union Building at Penn State Behrend that says, “Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns.”

The note is just one of many that have flooded the stairwell since senior Ashlyn Kelly and some friends first began hanging them there among ads for band concerts, author talks, and apartment leases:

You are beautiful.

No one is better at being you.

Be as happy as your dog when it sees you.

What started as a simple gesture to encourage others has since taken on a life of its own. Soon, others joined, leaving their own quotes on blank sticky notes left by Kelly and anonymous members of Random Acts of Kindness (RAK), a club aiming to brighten days through demonstrations of goodwill and positivity.

Close up of post-it notes with various messages written

Post-its with a purpose

Simple messages of encouragement flood the stairwell of the Reed Union Building at Penn State Behrend. What started as a simple gesture by Ashlyn Kelly, president of Random Acts of Kindness, and friends has now taken on a life of its own.

IMAGE: Robert Frank

“The first time people see it, they think, ‘What is this all about?’ Then they read some of the notes, and they get it. Sometimes they add one of their own. That’s how it grows." —Ashlyn Kelly

Now, there are more notes. They are written in languages ranging from Mandarin to Arabic and often include the number for the suicide-prevention hotline. People draw hearts on them, and smiley faces, and offer suggestions for how to make the day better:

Hold the door for someone.

Share your umbrella with a stranger.

Say hello to four new people today.

The notes cover the walls, nearly a thousand in all, and people stop to read them.

“The first time people see it, they think, ‘What is this all about?’” said Kelly. “Then they read some of the notes, and they get it. Sometimes they add one of their own. That’s how it grows."

People feel better when they read the notes. And maybe that extends beyond the stairwell: Maybe they’re kinder to a classmate, or a cashier, or a driver trying to exit a campus parking lot.

Kelly has reason to believe in kindness paid forward.

When she was in her second semester at Penn State Behrend, her father, an electrician, was critically injured while wiring a power box at a worksite. An arc flash—a blast of energy caused by a short circuit—ionized the air around him, causing first-degree burns on his face and chest and third-degree burns on his wrist and hand. He was flown to a hospital in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Our family went through a lot when that happened,” Kelly said. “It was rough.” What she remembers now is the help the family received. Her father’s employer paid for hotel rooms, which allowed the family to stay near the hospital. Back at home, neighbors plowed snow from their driveway. People she barely knew brought food.

"The fact that so many people stepped in to help our family, to lift some of that burden off us... it really made a difference," Kelly said. "It changed my entire perspective on life."

Woman standing in front of a wall of Post-It notes

Ashlyn Kelly

Penn State Behrend senior, Ashlyn Kelly, poses in the stairwell of the Reed Union Building on campus in front of the wall that has become a visual display of the positivity Random Acts of Kindness, a club at Behrend, aims to spread throughout the campus community through anonymous acts of goodwill. 

IMAGE: Robert Frank

"The fact that so many people stepped in to help our family, to lift some of that burden off us ... it really made a difference. It changed my entire perspective on life." —Ashlyn Kelly

Putting Kindness into Action

Following her experience with her father’s injury, Kelly volunteered more. She served as a Lion Ambassador and as president of the Chemistry Club and the Nittany Catholic Club. She donated time to ServErie, a community renewal program coordinated by a network of Erie churches. She traveled to Texas for a spring break service trip.

Kelly was invited to join RAK, which formed at Penn State Behrend in 2011. The group’s members work anonymously, distributing snack bags and assembling care packages for students who are experiencing hardship.

"They do things very quietly," said Jill Forsman Fox, assistant director of residence life at Penn State Behrend and the club’s adviser. "They try to stay behind the scenes, but the work they do really has changed the campus. That sense of belonging and the constant encouragement creates a positive energy, and when students feel that, they want to pay it forward."

To welcome new students, RAK members leave Pop-Tarts at the door to every room in the first-year residence halls. They enter the buildings again just before finals week, leaving 1,900 snack bags—Goldfish crackers, Pringles, Nutter Butters, Oreo Minis—to fuel study breaks.

Woman stuffing baggies surrounded by boxes of snack foods

Stuffing goodie bags for finals

Kelly stuffs snack bags for members of Random Acts of Kindness to distribute during finals week. Members will leave approximately 1,900 snack bags in total to fuel study breaks for students.

IMAGE: Robert Frank

"They try to stay behind the scenes, but the work they do really has changed the campus. That sense of belonging and the constant encouragement creates a positive energy, and when students feel that, they want to pay it forward." —Jill Forsman Fox, assistant director of residence life

Their shopping trips are funded by the Student Activity Fee. Kelly, now the club’s president, will clear the shelves at Walmart: On the last trip, RAK members bought eighty boxes of granola bars.

"We had five carts filled with snack food,” Kelly said. "The cashier just laughed."

The next trip is for a bulk purchase of Smarties. RAK members tie a blue ribbon to each roll and set candies on every chair at commencement. Kelly will find one when she reaches her seat at Erie Insurance Arena on May 4.

The Power of the Unexpected

Gretchen Shaffer’s care package was a box full of chocolate, left on the bed of her on-campus apartment.

Shaffer, a junior from Zelienople, lost her cousin in 2017. "I was at my lowest point,” she said. "When you’re away at college, your parents aren’t there to help. All you have are your friends."

One of those friends contacted RAK. The group purchases gift cards, coloring books, and food bags for students who are recovering from accidents or who have had a death in the family.

Shaffer’s box came with a two-inch-thick stack of handmade cards, each signed with a heart and the letters “RAK.” She knew about the group; she had been in the RAK stairwell and had enjoyed the snack bags during finals weeks. But she broke down reading the cards.

"The fact that all these people who didn’t even know me would take the time to do that, just to try to help, really meant the world to me," she said. "It still does."

Shaffer carries the cards with her, zipped into the front pocket of her backpack. She had them in there in September when she joined RAK and met with the club’s members for the first time.

Kelly cried when she saw the cards. Yet even now, after working with Shaffer on RAK projects, she hasn’t acknowledged writing one. She believes it means more when the giver is anonymous.

"If you’re dating someone, or if you’re with your family, you expect them to treat you well," she said. "It’s different when it’s random. It’s more of a surprise, and the mystery deepens the meaning of it."

Delivering Kindness at Lehigh Valley

First-year student Tim Hunte spreads kindness at Lehigh Valley one rose at a time. After delivering flowers to a friend going through a rough time after a break-up, he realized that the gesture not only helped a friend in need, but he felt better too. The following month, he bought six dozen roses, which he handed to students on campus at random. A few months later, for Valentine’s Day, he spent $150 to buy more.

“My father always taught me to say what is in your heart, and to follow through with your actions,” Hunte said. “That’s what I’m doing. Everyone has the right to be happy, and to be treated properly. I’m just a normal guy reminding people that they are loved, and that no matter what happens, they have support.”