‘Be Kind’ founder sends thousands of positive messages out into the universe

A kindness movement that soars across the nation via Gini Bonnell’s angels has taken flight in the Tri-Cities area.

During this unprecedented time when people are fighting for equality and weathering COVID-19, ‘Be Kind’ signs remind individuals to treat others like they themselves would like to be treated.

“Love, love, LOVE how the message of kindness is spreading in the Petersburg area,” said ‘Be Kind’ founder Bonnell of Richmond.

“Gini started making ‘Be Kind’ signs a few years ago as a way to cope with all the negativity and polarizing messages around us,” said Crystal Phelps of Colonial Heights. “She handed them out to friends and neighbors which spiraled into many others following her lead as a way of making someone smile. Her idea exploded into schools, front yards, porches, and businesses across the world.”

Bonnell’s “Be Kind” message has been trending across the globe since 2018 as a result of repurposing a whiteboard she found tossed in the trash while on a walk. Wanting to encourage acts of kindness, Bonnell wrote positive messages on the board she placed in her front yard.

Drivers honked as they drove by her sign which inspired Bonnell to keep promoting positivity after the elements took its toll on her beacon of light. To replace the worn-out, miniature billboard, Bonnell painted “Be Kind” along with a red heart on a piece of wood she had discovered in her garage.

Before long, the two simple words which pulled on the heartstrings of those passing by became highly sought after by others who also wished to promote kindness.

When I asked how many signs she has given away for free since the first one, Bonnell responded, “I can’t tell you how many signs. I’ve lost track, but thousands have gone out into the Universe.”

According to Bonnell who is in her 60s, “Be Kind” signs are displayed in every state in the U.S. and in 38 countries.

Every year, Phelps who spearheaded sharing Gini’s message in the Tri-Cities area picks a ‘word of the year’. This year, she selected the word ‘kind’.

In February, Rosey Slocum at Vision of Rose Photo in Petersburg asked her brand representatives including Phelps to choose a word to be a photoshoot theme.

“‘Kind’ was already my word even before I knew I was doing any of this,” said Phelps.

Where was Phelps pleasantly exposed to the magical two words?

“Right before COVID hit, I went to Ashland to help my friend Stacie O’Dell paint ‘Be Kind’ signs,” said Phelps. “Her entire neighborhood has them on display.”

“It was then that I felt compelled to enlist friends, family, and strangers to carry the blessing forward in the Tri-Cities area,” said Phelps. “Our team of angels has painted and given away nearly 2,000 signs since March.”

Phelps is delighted with the number of volunteers that have come forward to help spread the message throughout the community.

“It’s a phased process to make it easier,” said Phelps. “We paint 100 to 200 at a time because it’s easier that way.”

Curious neighbors walking their dogs seeing the flurry of activity in Phelps’ garage have become involved.

“Whoever wants to come by to paint the phrase and heart is welcome,” stated Phelps.

Phelps’ mom Shirley paints the black edges, her stepdad Gary Eichler drills the holes, and Phelps applies white paint, installs hooks, ties twine, and writes Proverbs 16:24 on the back of each one.

“The Bible verse ‘Kind words are like honey…Sweet to the soul’ is my signature to show that it came out of my garage,” said Phelps.

According to Phelps, 10% of the residents in her Dunlop Farms neighborhood have a sign gracing their yard or home.

“It makes me smile when I come home seeing the sign on our front door that Crystal gave me,” said Phelps’ neighbor Superintendent of Colonial Heights Public Schools William Sroufe. “Having a message like ‘Be Kind’ is just one of those things you see and it makes you stop and pause. It’s a nice reminder of how the world should be.”

“A lot of times when I make decisions, I ask myself, ‘What good is going to come out of this decision I’m about to make?’” said Sroufe. “It’s easy to be kind, and the world would be a much better place if we all were.”

Throughout this whole pandemic, Sroufe shared with me that he thinks the community has come together and offered grace when grace was needed.

“Everybody has been kind throughout the entire situation,” said Sroufe. “People are nervous and have been asking questions, but they’ve been kind about it.

“They’ve reached out through social media, email, and hand-written cards thanking me for putting our kids first,” said Sroufe. “It’s all the message of being kind.”

Phelps makes Old Towne Studio 7 owner Denise Tipton’s day by sharing three signs with her out of the blue.

“I love the message of the ‘Be Kind’ signs. Kindness is a gift we can all give. Although, it really is one of the most difficult ones to give or do,” said Tipton. “It often requires holding back our own anger or giving time and energy to those who might not deserve it. If we all strive to practice kindness, it will go a long way to helping our families and our neighborhoods.

“I hope that the message of kindness will remind those around us, to be kind even when it’s difficult,” added Tipton. “Kindness offered…helps each of us to develop self-control or discipline, and I think it grows us into more loving or patient members of the communities we live in.”

Who helps Phelps share kindness in the form of free signs?

ReVintage owner Gayle Heilbronn receives great pleasure from seeing the wonder on someone’s face as she hands them a sign.

According to Heilbronn, customers respond saying, “It’s free; really?”

“I give them a few seconds to process it,” said Heilbronn. “Then, I explain how Gini started the movement and show them the information on the back of the sign that explains her purpose.”

Heilbronn keeps signs in her car and hands them out to random, unsuspecting grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, UPS drivers, and others.

“I paint as many signs as I can, and a lot of love is going into making them,” said Heilbronn. “It’s a collaboration between Julie, Crystal, and myself, and we rotate signs and supplies as needed. If I run out at the store, I can pick up more at Crystal’s where Julie delivers the sanded wood.”

Julie Peterson of Fort Lee rents space at ReVintage for her Pace Woodturning business.

Each “Be Kind” Tri-Cities team member is grateful to members of the community who have donated wood and cash for supplies such as paint, brushes, hooks, twine, and masking tape.

“It’s all about the ‘giving’,” added Heilbronn. “My heart fills with every sign I hand over.”

Due to overwhelming demand, a three-sign limit has been established at sign distribution sites: ReVintage located at 2229 Boulevard in Colonial Heights, Humble Beginnings located at 23 A West Old Street in Old Towne Petersburg, and Jeweler’s Services, Inc. located at 6523 Centralia Road in Chesterfield.

Phelps suggests contacting the pickup locations in advance to check for sign availability.

“This is not about the store,” shared Heilbronn. “It’s about a blessing.”

“It’s a simple reminder that a kind word or gesture has power and can change the trajectory of someone’s day,” said Phelps. “If the words on each sign can touch just one heart, then, its purpose of spreading the message of love and kindness has been served.”

Full of passion for her kindness movement that just may travel to infinity and beyond, Bonnell passionately stated, “If we all choose kindness, we can change the world.”