That October afternoon, Embry and her three children, Kaian, 7; Kayden, 10; and Natalya, 14, had done laundry and were sitting around the table. A Disney+ movie was on in the background. Then the fire alarm went off.
At first, Embry thought the alarm was malfunctioning – but when making a safety check, she saw the fire and the family sprang into action. Kayden found the fire extinguisher and helped his mom pull the pin. When the window broke, she knew she was outmatched.
“It just felt so …” Embry said, pausing briefly, as she ate breakfast with her children just days before Christmas 2021. “This is a movie. This can’t be real.”
In the days that followed, things didn’t get easier. The family moved into a nearby hotel for about three weeks as cleaners cleared the mess. Embry suffered from the effects of smoke inhalation. Kayden tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantined in the hotel room. Kaian started experiencing unexpected seizure-like spasms and spent two days at Children’s Hospital. And Natalya struggled to process it all, keeping a brave face for her mom and brothers, before the emotions bubbled to the surface.
Despite these mounting challenges, Embry said “things just started falling in line,” as others chipped in to help the family. A small army of people showed up with new boxes and helped move their damaged belongings out of the house. Gift cards, home-baked bread, meals and other comforts were dropped off right as the family needed them most. Natalya’s counselor gifted Embry with bath bombs, or what she calls “heaven in a box.”
“It felt like [it] was such a beautiful safety net provided by our neighborhood,” our church and the communities of Werner Elementary and Kinard Middle schools, Embry said. Kaian, Kayden and Natalya nodded in agreement, reminding their mother of the many ways people have shown them empathy and support. These communities often provided things before Embry even anticipated them as a need, such as gift cards that arrived when they realized they needed new bedding and towels.
Living in their home once again, the family put up a Christmas tree and decorated it with lights and ornaments that were (thankfully) untouched by the fire. They are hopeful that construction will be complete sometime in February. With the ongoing support of their communities, they hope a sense of normalcy will follow.
“Through it all, we have been truly blessed and appreciate each and every expression of kindness,” Embry said.
The generosity shown to the Embry family is not unique in this community. Kindness is woven into PSD’s culture – discussed, practiced and celebrated throughout our school communities now more than ever before. Some schools continue annual traditions where they donate food, clothing and gifts to families in need. In some elementary schools, fifth graders read or teach yoga to their younger classmates. For National World Kindness Day in December, students in Werner Elementary’s Kindness Group passed out popsicle sticks bearing kind messages at lunchtime and gave out kindness forms on which their classmates could draw and write how they show kindness.
Look no further than Olander Elementary School art teacher Diana Fields’ classroom, as one such example.
When they were done creating their Mona Lisas, fourth-grade students were invited to the front of the classroom to share a random act of kindness they did before winter break. Kindness has always had a strong presence at Olander, Fields said, but all staff focused specifically on it as a character trait during the weeks leading up to winter break as part of the school’s Character Strong program.
It’s important to teach kindness and other soft skills – think respect, listening and teamwork -- “every chance you can, everywhere you can, so the kids hear it.
“You just want kindness to be something that happens naturally for students, so it becomes the norm,” Fields said. She and others agree that kindness has always existed in PSD but that it is definitely “blossoming and becoming visible.”
Fields is one of many who have created experiences for the school’s community to spread kindness in memory of Olander paraprofessional Melissa Hunnell, who died in summer 2021. Proceeds from various events held to honor Hunnell will pay for improvements to Olander’s playground.
“She was always just so friendly,” Fields said of Hunnell. “You could tell who she was by the little interactions. … She was bright and always willing to help.”
Inspired by comments that Hunnell “was like a light,” Fields and a colleague brainstormed and decided to get students’ help making hundreds of “Be the Light” necklaces. Students were excited to honor their beloved para, and some even spent time during recess tracing lightbulbs onto Shrinky Dink plastic that Fields baked down in her oven to create the lightbulb-shaped charms.
Fields’ daughter and friends, members of Rocky Mountain High School’s National Art Honor Society, volunteered time affixing the one-inch lightbulbs to satin cords. Students raised about $300 through their purchase of the necklaces that Fields sees around their necks as they pass her in the halls.
Back in her classroom, one student said they held the door open for another person, and another said they helped pick up some papers their mom had dropped. With that, class was done, and Fields bid them farewell. “Bye, fourth grade! Thank you for being so kind,” she said, as they filed out the door.
Kindness is PSD culture
Kindness is shown in different ways - through a club, continuing a charitable event or simply treating each other well. Below are a few examples of kindness in PSD schools.
To highlight how your class or school is celebrating kindness, email Executive Director of Communications Madeline Noblett at firstname.lastname@example.org.