As the social media landscape evolves, the number of opportunities for bullying concurrently increases.
In a day and age when individuals could be more susceptible to malice than ever before, a group of students in South Philadelphia are countering the trends with acts of kindness.
Marking its second annual year, RAK, or Random Acts of Kindness, has recently kicked off its 2019-2020 season at Columbus Square’s recreation center. Comprised of close to 40 6- to 13-year-olds, the growing organization works to not only cultivate goodwill among one another but expand altruism into the local community.
The series of group activities, which are hosted bi-monthly on Monday evenings, was originally cultivated last year by Girard Estate native Stacey Ann Altadonna, who is the executive chef of the Fitzwater Cafe.
Altadonna, a graduate of St. Maria Goretti High School and The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, unearthed a passion for teaching after hosting a children’s cooking class at her cafe a few years ago. The workshops were later moved to Columbus Square, where Altadonna eventually transformed the sessions’ focus from cooking to compassion.
“For me, the mission was to teach the importance of being kind, being nice and to make a difference in our community for whomever is in need,” she said.
Sparking the birth of RAK, the club, which was initially attended by only seven students, began meeting twice a month last November.
Each hour-and-a-half session continues to center upon a different cause as students work toward a “lesson” coupled with a “purpose.”
As a mother of two, Altadonna seeks inspiration for lesson plans by observing the experiences of her adolescent-aged son and daughter.
“I learned that children genuinely want to do nice things,” she said. “They want to be helpful. They just want to be able to help.”
As they participate in kindness-related seminars, such as how to avert bullying in schools, the students simultaneously work on charities for outside causes, such as homelessness, food insecurity and pediatric cancer research.
During the first session of this school year, for example, students made colorful friendship bracelets, which were sold during the 2019 CHOP Buddy Walk and Family Fun Day on Oct. 6. All funds collected from the crafty jewelry went toward CHOP’s research for Down syndrome.
Students also brought in dozens of unused socks that were donated to the homeless.
“It’s just so (students) can have an understanding of what it means to be kind, what it means to be a good child,” said RAK volunteer Bernadette Armstrong. “And hopefully, spread that to their other friends who might not be a part of the group yet…We just want to bring awareness that it’s cool to be kind.”
Last year, RAK collaborated with local charity nonprofits, including The Sunday Love Project, whose mission includes feeding the homeless of Philadelphia.
During their first season, students also made sandwiches for the homeless, collected gently used sneakers for those in need and sponsored a family during the holiday season.
Altadonna says attendance has increased five times as much since last year, with several students returning as well.
“I came back this year because RAK – it’s really fun and, even though the subject of the entire club is something that kids might call boring, it’s really fun,” said 10-year-old Marianna Dobos, a student at Julia R. Masterman. “I’ve learned how to deal with bullying, how to stop bullying.”
Student participants say they notice bullying is a prevalent issue both in their schools’ hallways and on all forms of social media.
But, they strive to harness the knowledge gained through RAK and spread that compassion into classrooms.
“I came back because I really liked it,” said 10-year-old Ava Silvanio, a student at Philadelphia Performings Arts Charter School. “It was fun, and I thought it was so cool how everyone donates…The biggest lesson I learned was probably that it’s always nice to give back.”
Fostering a serene setting composed with pizza, music and no homework, RAK hopes to serve as an outlet for students where they can not only help others but take care of themselves through relaxation.
With more “lessons” and “purposes” planned for this school year, Altadonna says RAK is an open invitation for all elementary and middle school students.
“The goal for me is just for this to continue to spread for more children to volunteer,” Altadonna said. “I can’t make a huge impact in the community, but it has to start somewhere.”
Info: The next event is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 21, at 6 p.m. at Columbus Square, 1200 Wharton St. If you’re interested in registering your child or sponsoring RAK, email Altadonna at Sdguokas@yahoo.com.