It all started with $80 in a dead woman’s purse.
That’s all Kristina Ulmer had left of her younger sister.
Katie Amodei died in a car crash on October 12, 2014. She was 29 years old.
Ulmer wanted this remnant of Katie’s last night — her final earnings as a waitress — to go toward something good.
But what should that be?
Would Katie have wanted to donate it to one of the charities she raised money for by running? Would she want it to support a sustainable earth, like her decision to be a vegan?
For four years, Ulmer debated. And she added to the funds: a few hundred from selling a Chromebook and some more from her savings as a ninth-grade English teacher at Hatboro-Horsham High School.
Last winter, as she discussed the book Fahrenheit 451 with her students, it struck her: “What if I could use the money in my class to teach kids to be kind to one another?”
The dystopian novel tells of a future where the government burns books and the rise of technology threatens humans’ connection with one another.
“I wanted my students to experience doing something kind for a stranger and understand that they’re connected with others,” Ulmer, 36, said.
It’s something Katie did all the time — from her charity runs to her certification as an EMT just months before her death, working to save strangers’ lives.
Ulmer gave each of her 26 students $20 and instructed them to help someone in need or perform a random act of kindness.
“We were all shocked when she pulled out all that money and handed it out,” said Eric Bromberg, a 15-year-old student in Ulmer’s class. “That’s not a type of project teachers do.”
Bromberg and his classmates immediately started brainstorming. Maybe they could pool their money together or invest the $20 so that it would grow over 10 years and fund a big project.
But that’s not quite what Ulmer had in mind.
“A lot of times kids think you have to do these grand gestures,” she said, “but I wanted to teach them it’s the small things.”
Ulmer told her students about the time a customer ahead of her in line at Starbucks paid for her morning coffee. It was just a $3 drink, but it made her day.
Inspired, Bromberg decided to make someone else’s day. He visited Lancers Diner, a staple for Horsham teens, and ordered a milkshake. When the bill came, he left the $20 as a tip for the waitress, with a note that read, “Happy new year. Spread kindness.”
As Bromberg sat in the car to head home, he spotted the waitress through the window. “She waved to me and gave me a thumbs up, mouthed ‘Thank you so much,’ ” he said.
He never expected to feel such pride and joy in giving away $20.
But a whole body of research shows that feeling is common: Kindness actually brings measurable health benefits. Doing nice things for others boosts levels of serotonin, the brain chemical that contributes to feelings of well-being, as well as the hormone oxytocin, which reduces blood pressure and inflammation. Being kind has also been shown to decrease feelings of depression and anxiety, and release endorphins to create what experts have dubbed a “helper’s high.”
Maci Lumpkin, 15, felt that rush when she donated the $20 to the school’s library to cover other students’ fines. The money cleared eight students’ debt, including four seniors who would not have been able to graduate with outstanding fines.
It felt so good that Lumpkin plans to save $50 of her own money — from a summer job at Rita’s Italian Ice and from birthday gifts — to repeat the gesture next year.
Sabrina Ibrahim, 15, created care packages for soldiers, hoping to spread the kindness beyond her personal community.
Other students bought fabric and sewed pillowcases to donate to people undergoing chemotherapy in the hospital. Some paid for people in line behind them at cafés and pizza shops. One student gave away free doughnuts on the street. Another bought sanitary pads for a homeless woman.
Many of their parents and siblings joined in, excited at the prospect of doing a random act of kindness.
Ulmer has received anonymous donations that allowed her to repeat the project with a new class this semester and will do so again in the fall. She’s set up a fundraising page to keep the project going beyond that.
It’s not only been a great lesson for her students, but also a way to heal from the grief of losing her sister.
Katie wasn’t married and didn’t have kids, Ulmer said. “My parents and I feared she would be forgotten.”
But this project allows Katie’s spirit of kindness to live on, even five years later.
“She’s still doing good," Ulmer said, "even if she’s not here to do it herself.”