Town residents Colleen Brightman and Rachel Calabrese, along with Laurie Barkowsky of Kingston, started a Random Act of Kindness challenge for the month of February four years ago.
They did so after seeing too much negativity on Facebook, and to honor some inspirational people who had influenced their lives in a positive way.
The first year, the Random Act of Kindness Facebook group had about 400 members.
But this year, more than 1,200 members posted on the page and inspired others by sharing their random acts.
Calabrese saw a post on the ROAK Facebook page during the challenge about Jessaihya Tushiminina, 13, an eighth-grader from Braintree who was assaulted in front of his house allegedly by five teens.
The assault was video recorded on a smartphone and shared on Snapchat in January.
The news was broadcast widely by the media and Calabrese knew she had to do something.
“I was also a victim of bullying in my junior year of high school when my parents moved from the city to Weymouth,” she said. “I wrote Jessaihya a letter letting him know that he was not alone and that as awful as it is to experience it, it will change him to be more empathetic and inclusive of others and how he will get through this time in his life and be stronger.”
Jessaihya and his mother, Mireille Tushiminina, came to a Foxboro Rotary Club meeting as guest speakers last month.
“I have been an activist for almost two decades and when this happened to my son, it truly hit home and I knew I had to advocate for my son,” she said.
Tushiminina is the executive director of the Shalupe Foundation, which advocates for women’s and girls’ rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and refugees and immigrants in Massachusetts.
She organizes the annual African Festival of Boston and community workshop using African Arts for Peace as a tool for social change.
“My emotional reaction from what Mireille and Jessaihya experienced was that of sadness,” Calabrese said. “The fact that children would hurt other children, film it, and laugh was beyond hurtful. I was astonished that Jessaihya had the maturity and bravery to speak in front of a group of adults at the meeting. What an incredible kid.”
Calabrese has experienced bullying herself.
“I was bullied relentlessly at school, not ever going into the bathrooms for fear of the girls or their friends being in there, and never joining clubs after school where they could wait for me. I ran home the minute the end of school bell rang to be safe.”
Calabrese said her awful experience in school did teach her some important lessons.
“The experience taught me to be empathetic to others and to always look out for the one person in the room who might be alone and start up a conversation. I was that person for a time in high school and know how isolating it feels,” she said.
Carrie Guerrini, who has lived in Foxboro since 1991 and raised three sons, also saw the Facebook post and prepared a gift basket and card for Jessaihya.
“My first reaction was anger,” she said. “As a mother, I would never want this to happen to my child. Immediately after that, I felt sad knowing that somebody had to go through this and now has to cope with the fear of pain and embarrassment because this was released over social media.”
Guerrini wanted to let him know there are people in his corner and he can find strength in that.
“This was also a teachable moment for me,” she said. “I showed my boys the video and as we discussed it, it opened up good conversations, questions, and opinions. They saw me reaching out buying the gifts and I believe that they were inspired. Hopefully, they will choose to show kindness as well.”
Guerrini also bought a bottle of wine for the mother “because as a mom I think this might be a good time for her to enjoy it.”
Jessaihya had a phone in his one hand and was eating chips when the assault occurred.
He said he was not expecting to be attacked by teens he thought were his friends.
“I put the hand in a bag of chips that’s when they did the first push and they attacked me,” Jessaihya said, but adding, “I am feeling so much better.”
His mother didn’t know his story would spread so far.
“If it was not this unfortunate incident I would have never ever known people in Foxboro and gained new friends,” she said. “The fact that people heard the news and acted upon it and reached out with kind words, gifts, and support shows there are still some good people out there.”
She added, “This random act of kindness to a stranger shows we can all still live and make the better world together.”