There’s a sticky note hanging in the stairwell of the Reed Union Building at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College that reads, “Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns.”
The note is just one of many that have flooded the stairwell since alumna Ashlyn Kelly and some friends first began hanging them 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. Other students joined in, leaving their own quotes on blank sticky notes left by Kelly and anonymous members of Random Acts of Kindness (RAK), a club that aims to brighten days through demonstrations of goodwill and positivity.
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 work site. 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, New York.
“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."
After that experience, 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.
Their shopping trips are funded by the Student Activity Fee. Kelly, the club's president last year, cleared the shelves at Walmart: On one trip, RAK members bought 80 boxes of granola bars.
"We had five carts filled with snack food,” Kelly said. "The cashier just laughed."
The next trip was for a bulk purchase of Smarties. RAK members tie a blue ribbon to each roll and set the candies on every chair at commencement. Kelly found one when she reached 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 senior 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."