By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – On Jan. 30, uniformed representatives of the Big Sky Fire Department and Gallatin County Sheriff’s office, as well as parents and teachers, lined the sidewalks outside of Ophir Elementary School cheering on students as they entered the building in all manners of Hawaiian-themed dress.

The “kindness tunnel” marked the official start of The Great Kindness Challenge, a global anti-bullying initiative in which more than 10 million students in 90 countries commit to completing a checklist of 50 acts of kindness during the five-day campaign that concluded Feb. 3. More than a dozen Big Sky businesses and organizations participated throughout the week by donating their services, gift certificates and time to the community at large, or to the volunteer effort at the school.

Inside the school, the festive spirit was well underway. Under a ceiling of colorful streamers and positive placards was a wishing well whose “kind coin” contributions would be donated for building a school in Pakistan. A paper chain made of links with words of kindness scribbled on them by students snaked its way toward the gymnasium, where a kick-off pep rally was held.

At the microphone, trying to corral the buzz of elementary and middle school children as they filed onto the bleachers, was elementary school counselor Jackie Clawson, responsible for spearheading the school district’s participation in The Great Kindness Challenge. She and the K-5 teachers, also sporting Hawaiian shirts, grass skirts and leis, took turns outlining the week’s events—each day had a costume theme—and showing examples of acts of kindness: giving a teacher a flower or putting a nice note in a friend’s backpack.

After a great many “Oh yeahs!” and call and response cheers, all of the students gathered in the middle of the gym forming the shape of a heart. It may have been a little misshapen, but was made whole by its exuberant constituents.

“As a school counselor bullying is always on my radar,” Clawson said after the rally. “However, I don’t really like to use the word ‘bullying’; I’d rather focus on the great things kids do because it builds that kindness culture.”

Clawson said the kindness challenge reflects a philosophy change in the school-counseling paradigm—a shift away from admonitions, toward focusing on positive alternatives or framing.

Clawson explained that the challenge is educational for the students on so many levels, from developing skills like goal setting—the children receive a checklist to work through—to providing a sense of ownership by engaging them in the appearance of their school, and providing a burst of energy and enthusiasm at the start of the second semester.

“It’s also important that we teach the students to listen to other people’s perspectives and treat them equally kind no matter what,” Clawson said. “I think it sometimes gets drowned out in the negativity of media stories. The good stories don’t always get heard.”

Fourth grader Blaise Ballantyne acted as BSSD’s Great Kindness Challenge Ambassador. He visited classrooms to explain the challenge to his peers and coordinated the school-wide creation of the kindness chain.

“It has been a ton of work,” Ballantyne said. “But it sends a message to be kind. You have to put some effort into it.”