In November 2010, photographer Katherine Marie writes in her blog that she and her family are performing small acts of kindness during the 25 days leading up to Christmas. She calls it "Random Acts of Christmas Kindness" or RACK. Her friend Tracie Stier-Johnson "borrows" the idea and posts some of her RACKs on Pinterest. These photos are in turn seen by Stephanie Pearson, who performs RACKs with her family the next holiday season. Stephanie, a graphic designer and writer for grkids.com, posts her activities on her Facebook page, which is seen by Melody VanderWeide, the founder/owner of grkids.com. Melody then shares the idea on her website, which is a popular parenting resource for the Grand Rapids area.
Thus, one by one, people are becoming aware of this variation on RAOK -- Random Acts of Kindness -- a growing movement that encourages people to do good unto others. It might have remained "random" in west Michigan if not for Stephanie's initiative. To make it easier for people to RACK and to create a like-minded community, she forms RACK the World in 2011. The website and Facebook page include RACK ideas and a card she designed, which can be downloaded for free.
Stephanie manages the sites in addition to being a busy graphic designer, writer, wife and mom of three. Much of her day is dedicated to raising her kids well, under circumstances quite different from her own childhood. After her parents divorce when she is 10 years old, she grows up with very little money. One Thanksgiving, she contributes to a food drive at school for the needy. She is devastated and embarrassed when some kids show up at her door with a box of food from that drive for her family. "We lived a very frugal life, and I learned to save, to work hard and to hold my own," she says.
Determined to improve her circumstances, she gets her first job as soon as she turns 16, working at Burger King after sports practices, on weekends and during vacations. She also excels at school, earning three varsity letters, serving as the drum major of the band, VP of the class, captain of the softball team and graduating second in her class. All those achievements lead to a full scholarship to Lawrence Tech University to study architecture, where she meets her husband, Tony, and graduates Summa Cum Laude.
When her son is born in 2004, Stephanie turns to her mother for child care as she works in an architecture firm. About a year later, her mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Stephanie becomes the caregiver as well as full-time mom. Even after her mother recovers, she opts to stay at home to focus on parenting. She and Tony now also have two daughters. Her drive and organizational skills allow her to volunteer for many school activities, coach softball and First LEGO League teams and always get dinner prepared on time. She even makes award-winning Halloween costumes that are featured on The View. Then at night, after her kids go to bed, she runs a digital graphic design business from home. "She's Superwoman incarnate," says Jenny Stevens, her college roommate. "Also, she doesn't sleep."
Her hard work pays off as she sees her children thriving academically. However, she begins to realize that no matter how book-smart her kids become, they also need to acquire the skills that would make them better people. She starts researching ideas and is completely inspired when she discovers Tracie Stier-Johnson's RACK Pinterest board.
Since she started RACK the World, thousands of people from as far away as New Zealand have liked the Facebook page and shared their experiences. One fan, Connie Fisher, wrote about a line of people, all paying for the stranger behind them at a McDonald's drive-thru. Kendra Platschorre, Stephanie's sister-in-law and a "RACKing rockstar," feels the anonymity is important. "It's so people don't feel obligated to return a favor to you," she says. "Hopefully, they'll pay it forward."
After they leave a RACK to be discovered, Stephanie's family sometimes lurks in the area to watch people's reactions to it. Other times, RACKs in which people do interact can have the most personal reward. One RACKer, Wendy Patsche, shares her emotional, gratifying experience of helping an elderly woman carry shopping bags to her car. "It didn’t cost any money, there were no pictures, and she wasn’t expecting it,” she writes on the RACK the World Facebook page. “She was kind and grateful, it was heartwarming, and we both have the memory."
One of Stephanie's favorite interactive RACKs inadvertently happens during another outing. Her kids assembled hand-made cards, packets of puzzle books, candy and other goodies and delivered them to patients at the Lacks Cancer Center in Grand Rapids. As the Pearsons are leaving, her son, who has been taking piano lessons for about six months, walks over to Margie Gage, a woman playing the piano in the lobby. He asks if he can play "Ode to Joy." She is very sweet and lets him give it a shot. As they chat about their RACKing venture, Margie mentions that it is her birthday. Stephanie's daughters light up and whisper to their brother that he should play the Birthday Song for her. So he sits back down and plays while the Pearsons sing along. "She was crying, I was crying," Stephanie says, "and the thank-you note she left on our page later that day left us all on cloud nine. She said it was one of the coolest birthday gifts she has ever received."
Beyond caring individuals, some companies are embracing the idea of random kindness during the holidays. On its social media sites, Brighton Collectibles is RAOKing a fan every day till Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the people who have gotten RAOKed pay it forward.
"If you're having a bad day, do something for someone else and your day will change," says Tony. "You'll get more out of it than the people who receive something." That's the jingle bell, that's the jingle bell, that's the jingle bell RAOK.