Oak Forest High School Starts Kindness Campaign

Oak Forest High School Starts Kindness Campaign
By: Donna Vickroy, Daily Southtown 

For the past 13 years, since they were placed in the same conference, the Oak Forest High School Bengals and the Lemont High School Indians have been going at it.

In football. In volleyball. In everything.

But now students are rising above the rivalry and proving that even longtime competitors can work together to make the world a kinder place.

A Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) movement is sweeping through Oak Forest High School. The inspiration for it came from a Lemont High School freshman who recently died.

Ellie Cuiching succumbed to a brain tumor last April. Up to her final days, the 14-year-old aspiring singer was all about quiet acts of kindness, often surprising her cousins and fellow students with simple gestures of encouragement, her mother Kyle Cuiching said.

Ellie suffered much of her life, enduring nine brain surgeries and some 1,600 doses of chemotherapy, but her mother says through the treatments, she remained positive, focusing on the needs of others.

When she was too sick to talk, she’d just smile and hold up her #elliestrong bracelet — a symbol of hope worn by more than 40,000 people around the world, including former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

“Ellie was a wonderful daughter. She was always concerned about others. She went out of her way to make other people feel good," Kyle Cuiching said.

In that spirit of selflessness, students at Oak Forest are now modeling a new RAK Tag campaign.

The Oak Forest movement recently was started by DECA club members, who randomly distributed bags of chips to students with a note that read, “You’re all that and a bag of chips.”

Those students then posted their RAK on Twitter, tagging #elliestrong and the Oak Forest Girls Volleyball Team, challenging them to do the same.

The volleyball players then distributed cookies randomly and posted to Twitter, also tagging #elliestrong and Girls Softball, which is now tasked with finding a way to reach out and surprise fellow students. (All posts are also shared to @ExperienceOFHS on Twitter.)

Math teacher Ashley Thompson is assistant adviser to DECA and a volleyball coach at OFHS.

“I came up with the game of tag to keep it going. We all hear about Random Acts of Kindness,” she said, but they always seem to be a single gesture. “We wanted to come up with a way to keep it going.”

 “We’re just trying to make our school a more positive place,” she said. “And we wanted to keep Ellie’s memory going. So we tied it all together.”

The plan now, she said, is to get adults at the school involved, and to reach out to other schools to join in.

“The basketball team is going to tag teams at Bremen (High School). We’ll see how far we can make it go,” she said.

Katie Gomez, head adviser of DECA at OFHS, said many of the recipients were surprised that someone would be nice to them without expecting anything in return.

 "There’s so much focus on negativity these days but we have great students who do great things. It’s nice to highlight that we have nice kids who want to be nice,” she said.

With 1,500 students in the school, Gomez said, it can be hard to connect with everybody. But a fun, kindness-inspired game of tag, she added, can be a launching pad for new friendships.

The Oak Forest students are also collecting plastic bottle caps for a Lemont area campaign to build kindness benches for an elementary school in District 113a.

“It takes 200 pounds of caps to make a bench, and they’re trying to make multiple benches so they need a lot of caps,” Gomez said.

The school has a receptacle for cap donations, she said.
Zaina Vetouni and Missy Ismail, members of DECA, spearheaded the RAK drive at Oak Forest. They handed out suckers, bags of chips and high-fives randomly to students they didn’t already know.

Missy, a junior, said the gestures proved to be ice-breakers.

“You can start a conversation. It’s an easier way to communicate with someone new,” she said.

Kindness, she said, is something everyone needs these days, including high school rivals.

“You don’t know what’s going on in people lives. Some people are lonely, some don’t have friends, or have other things going on. And even if they don’t, this can brighten up their day,” she said.

Tony Hamilton, spokesman for Lemont High School, said the student body there, as well as the community, is still struggling with the loss of Ellie.

Her memory was honored during Lemont’s Homecoming week when students opted to wear green and participate in Random Acts of Kindness.

"What OFHS is doing now is outstanding,” he said.

“What’s really touching about what Oak Forest’s students are doing is that they are going out of their way to honor the legacy of a peer whom they never met,” he said. “They are demonstrating humanity and kindness in a way that would make any parent or educator beam with pride.

“There have been plenty of conference championships that have been decided on that game between Oak Forest and Lemont” whether it was in basketball, football, softball or something else, Hamilton said. He credits the good relationship between administrators and coaches at both schools as well as mutual respect among the students.
The teens engaged in RAK Tag, she said, are making kindness cool. For them to include Ellie in the fun, she added, “touches my heart."

On the Ellie Strong Foundation website, Kyle Cuiching offers instructions for taking up a RAK campaign. She also lists drop off locations for the bottle cap bench mission. And she collects donations to put together toiletry bags for child cancer patients who have to spend the night at the hospital, something Ellie did too frequently, she said.

“It makes me feel good that Ellie made such an impact in her short 14 years,” she said.

“We were very lucky to have her," she said. "It hurts losing her. I would rather have her back but the fact that she’s made such an impact in such a short time, I mean, there are people who live 90 years and never have the impact she had.”