When Brad Aronson’s wife, Mia, got sick in 2014 with leukemia, the couple was overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness from friends, family, and complete strangers. Inspired by the many demonstrations of "humankindnesses” that supported their family through Mia’s recovery, Aronson — a local tech investor who lives with his wife and their son Jack in Queen Village — began seeking out and writing stories of those whose acts of kindness transform lives every day.

The result is his new book, Human Kind: How to Change the World One Small Act at a Time (LifeTree Media, 2020). It goes on sale April 14, and 100% of its proceeds will support Big Brothers Big Sisters, on whose board Aronson sits. In this excerpt, Aronson introduces readers to the power of the right words, spoken at the right time.

Words provide us with an amazing opportunity. Whether we spend five minutes and 55 cents to drop someone a line or make a greater investment, there’s no limit to the impact our words can have. We can express love, brighten a day, and transform lives.

My friend Luis Olivieri tells the story of a teacher whose words of encouragement changed everything for him. He was in 11th grade at Jose de Diego High School in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and just wanted to live in the moment. He considered college to be something outside his abilities and his reach.

“I never saw myself as someone intelligent, and I certainly didn’t see myself as university-student material,” he says. “I didn’t have any clue to what was going to happen with my life. I figured I’d be a salesman in a store somewhere like my grandfather, my father, and my older brother.”

Luis Olivieri, GIS Director at Hope Works in Camden.
Chrissy Kovnat
Luis Olivieri, GIS Director at Hope Works in Camden.

After a science exam one day, his teacher Victor Casiano dismissed the rest of the class but asked Luis to stay. Luis assumed he was in trouble for something. When the others had left, the teacher leaned back in his chair.

“What are you doing wasting your time and wasting my time?” he said. “You are one of the smartest kids in the class. You should be focused and thinking about going to college. You should work harder in school.”

Luis didn’t say anything. “You just listen during those ‘open your eyes’ moments,” he says. “This was coming from someone I really respected, so it was important. Listening to Victor telling me I could succeed was a very powerful moment.”

It was a turning point, in fact. Before that conversation, although he’d excelled in science, he’d barely gotten by in his other classes because he just didn’t care about those subjects. But afterward, he started taking them seriously and getting better grades. Science remained first in his heart, though, and he teamed up with Victor and another teacher on science projects that they’d work on during class, after school, and on weekends.

Victor also encouraged him to participate in science fairs. Luis was skeptical about his chances, but he went on to win at the local, municipal, and regional levels for a project on the distribution of lichens — a barometer of pollution — in the western region of Puerto Rico.

It was too little too late, though. Although he also went on to do well on the college boards, his lackluster start to high school dragged his GPA down low enough that he wasn’t accepted to the University of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, it was the University of Puerto Rico or nothing because his parents couldn’t afford to send him to a private school.

Victor had instilled Luis with too much self-confidence to accept the verdict quietly, so he met with the university admissions director. She wasn’t budging, though.

“Honey, if you do not have the GPA, you cannot get in,” she told him.

As definitive as that sounded, Luis didn’t give up. When he saw the chancellor outside the admissions office, he asked for five minutes of his time.

“He was this huge, tall guy, and he put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to his office," says Luis. "We were standing around his conference table and I opened my small suitcase and started taking out the science awards and putting them on the table. I had the certificates framed and there were a couple of medals.

“It was very casual conversation, and he asked a lot of questions: ‘What is this award for? Can you tell me about your project?’

“When he had no more questions, I waited. ‘You know your work says more about you than your GPA,’ the chancellor finally said. ‘I’m going to give you a chance to come to the university.’

“I was about 10 feet tall,” Luis says. “We went to the admissions director, who told me I couldn’t get in, and he said, ‘I want this guy in,’ and he signed the paperwork right there.”

Luis graduated in 1992 with a bachelor of science degree and later received a master of science. Today, he works at Hopeworks, a nonprofit organization that provides education and training in technology and entrepreneurship. Its goal is to break the cycle of poverty and violence among youths in Camden, N.J. — one of America’s poorest cities and often cited as one of the most dangerous.

An expert in geographic information systems, Luis could be earning top dollar at a consultancy, but it’s more important to him to help youth.

“It’s a lot like what Victor did for me,” Luis told me. “His words of encouragement after a science test made me believe in myself. At Hopeworks, I’m helping young people understand their potential and helping them understand that they can do way more than they think they can do.”