As Terre Haute resident Robin Heng drove down 25th Street, she couldn’t help but notice the indecipherable signatures sprayed across blank building as if they were canvases.
Driving further, she saw the rash of graffiti scrawled pox dotting her path to work. Finally, after witnessing what had once been a singular blemish break out to other buildings further down the street, the Visiting Nurses and Hospice of the Wabash Valley nurse decided that it was enough.
She knew it was a project perfect for her and a few of her friends.
Heng ‘03, along with friends Susan Short and Kim Grubb ‘83, already had accomplished several community service projects as the founding members of SPPRAK, or Special People Performing Random Acts of Kindness. They previously organized FUNraisers, their name for parties and social gatherings to raise money for a charitable cause. This time, they put their knowledge to use on a building beautification project.
They quickly found that, just as the tagging rash had spread, so would SPPRAK’s efforts to blot them out.
“We just decided that we would start painting over some of this stuff, and we really started with our routes to work, because we wanted a nice ride to work,” Heng said of the citywide effort that has resulted in the elimination of more than 450 graffiti tags. “It just extended, and we had some groups of ISU students who have helped us, Rose-Hulman students” and others, including Graffiti Busters and even the Terre Haute Police Department.
The group’s efforts quickly caught on in the community, as many SPPRAK initiatives have. From holiday Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties to Tacky Tourist FUNraisers (as the members call them) to their social media presence, SPPRAK encourages people in Terre Haute and beyond to improve life to make the world a little more positive, one random act at a time.
Psychology of positive
“I think what they’re doing is transformative,” said Christine Kennedy, director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State. “Doing good is good for us. What did Anna Quindlen write in ‘Short Guide to a Happy Life’? [Something like] ‘By all means, do well. But if you do well without ever doing good, then doing well will never be enough.’”
People may not realize that, when doing something beneficial for someone else, they are indirectly benefiting as well, as they also feel good about the activity. While this may sound like common sense, it is part of the growing field of research called positive psychology.
“Happiness research [in positive psychology] is really taking off, and the interesting piece about that is that psychology for many years was focused on getting rid of or freeing people from illness and focusing on depression and disorder, and happiness research pops up and starts talking about people’s strengths,” Kennedy said. “The interesting thing is that the reception was less than enthusiastic.”
Kennedy, an avid supporter of SPPRAK’s efforts, understands the benefits of positive psychology. While SPPRAK organizes large events and citywide initiatives, they also advocate for people to perform at least one random act of kindness each day. The person performing the act may feel a bit happier, which compiled over time can yield impressive results.
“What people don’t realize is that cultivating happiness helps you accomplish your other goals,” Kennedy said. “There’s a direct correlation between people who report higher levels of happiness who also report that their relationships are better, they make more money, they live longer, they report higher satisfaction.”
When people do activities that make them happy, the brain releases dopamine, a required neurological ingredient linked to happiness. Research has found that 50 percent of our predisposition toward positive emotion is based on genetics, while other aspects such as social status and employment account for 10 percent, Kennedy said. The remaining 40 percent is “left to our intentional behavior,” she added.
“We’ve found that engaging in gratitude, compassion and spiritual emotions, besides having this spiritual windfall, we find that if we involve ourselves in things bigger than ourselves, when we start to consider about the well-being of the world, our lives grow,” Kennedy said. “We transcend our own lives and even our own death by caring about things bigger than ourselves.”
SPPRAK members Short, along with Grubb and Heng, who earned their nursing degrees from Indiana State, organized their first event in December 2009 to collect toiletries and basic items for people at the Light House Mission.
They organized a Christmas sweater party the next year to benefit the Salvation Army, and the organization took off after that. Their efforts to eradicate graffiti generated local media interest, which in turn helped generate community support. It has carried on to other efforts as well.
Yet they do not revel in the attention. Their SPPRAK business card features their names, a contact e-mail address, their blog and the photos of their faces – cut off at the nose, with sunglasses and hats obscuring their portraits even more.
“It’s not just the three of us. Anybody that does a random act of kindness becomes part of the SPPRAK pack,” Heng said. “If we showed our face, they would think it’s just us, and it’s not. We just hope to be the facilitators.”
As the SPPRAK trio witnessed the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were killed, they wanted to do something to improve the local school environment for students and teachers. This came as school officials nationwide began to ponder how to best improve student safety.
“We couldn’t figure out something that could change, because everyone was scared to go to school, and who wants to teach in that atmosphere?” Short said. “But we just had this idea and thought, ‘What the heck?’ We really didn’t think that they would agree immediately.”
They wanted to put banners up in each of the Vigo County schools, where students can then write notes supporting someone or thanking someone for a good deed. The idea was to create a more positive atmosphere in the wake of the school safety concerns.
“There was so many things they couldn’t do, and that was one thing they could do that was positive,” Short said, “and we’ve had support from parents’ groups and all the principals.”
The initiative started in February, and was expected to last a few weeks, but instead continued until the end of spring semester, with potential plans to continue into next year, the SPPRAK members said.
The group has received support for smaller projects that even take them by surprise. In early March, Grubb posted a suggestion on the group’s Facebook page that they would collect items to make Easter baskets for the children at Ryves Youth Center at Etling Hall and Bethany House. They were delighted by the public’s response: 30 jump ropes, 40 chocolate crosses, and more than 300 eggs were donated.
The group routinely suggests random acts. In one Facebook post, Short took a photo as she put a quarter in a 25-cent candy machine, recommending leaving the quarters in the machines for other people to get the items as that day’s random act of kindness.
“People want to give,” Short said. “We just kind of give them directions and suggestions about where to give or where the need is.”
The random act recipient could be someone in need of cheering up. The SPPRAK members say that a fun challenge can be to find a way to do a random act of kindness. Grubb suggested leaving a note along with a tip for waiter or waitress who did an especially good job.
“You never know that that might’ve been a horrible day for them,” Grubb said, “and that simple act could improve it.”
The SPPRAK members have met with Kennedy to discuss potential collaboration with the ISU Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality. While they have not yet partnered, the center has worked with Hospice of the Wabash Valley to sponsor the health care organization’s Run and Remember in March at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.
“If we spent a smidgen of time each day practicing to cultivate happiness and these other qualities for their virtues, the world would be better,” Kennedy said. “Not only that, but we would be transforming our brains in very positive ways.”
The SPPRAK founders have already noticed benefits. The experiences they’ve had help them improve their own lives.
“It reminds you that you get so caught up with what’s going on with you, what’s going on at your job, what’s going on with your family, and this helps us to think outside of that,” Short said. “You can leave your problems and help somebody.”
Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations.