How Alisha Barton started a wave of kindness
Story by Alayna DeMartini | Video by Mitch Moser
A couple months before her birthday, Alisha Barton considered the possibilities.
This was a big one. Forty. She could go out to dinner with her family as she had for many birthdays. They could do a daylong outing somewhere. But this was a milestone, and she wanted her friends to be involved—all of them, ideally. Or at least most of them. That was tricky. She grew up in a military family, and her husband is a U.S. Air Force civilian, so, until recently, Barton had never lived anywhere in the United States for more than three years. Her friends are scattered across the world, in 20 states, five countries.
A year earlier, Barton had read Kindness Boomerang, and, for a New Year’s resolution, she did exactly what the book had advised: at least one random act of kindness. Every day. Having completed that, the only New Year’s resolution she said she kept in 2018, she figured why not branch out. What if she did random acts of kindness for the 40 days leading up to her birthday? And what if she got her friends involved? Barton started a Facebook group. Alisha Barton Turns 40, she titled it. She invited her friends and relatives, some as far away as Japan.
In case you are thinking Barton is a modern-day Mother Teresa-type, she is quick to point out before she details the many daily kind acts she did, that she sometimes yells or gets impatient with drivers, with her four daughters, with her husband. And she doesn’t consider herself very good at keeping up with her friends and remembering or acknowledging their birthdays or their children’s birthdays.
Barton wants you to know all of that up front to keep you from assuming she is perfect—the perfect coworker, the perfect mom, always a shining example to her children.
“I need to do random acts of kindness,” said Barton, a Miami County, Ohio, family and consumer sciences educator with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
Starting on Aug. 8, exactly 40 days before her Sept. 17 birthday, Barton did her first random acts of kindness and posted about it to spur the momentum among her Facebook comrades. Each person in the group could sign up to do a kind act on one of the 40 days before Barton’s birthday.
“I was kind of nervous about how it would be received,” Barton said. “I was asking them to do something, and people are really busy. I didn’t want to add to their to-do lists.”
Their responses astonished her. Friends across the world participated.
“Spain, Japan, Finland, Germany … I’m forgetting one,” she said.
She recited the list again, adding Italy.
“I was kind of nervous about how it would be received. I was asking them to do something and people are really busy.”Alisha Barton
It would be tough to remember them all. Over 100 people joined Barton’s Facebook group, each committing to do at least one kind act. Many did several.
For all of the participants, Barton kept a schedule and emailed them reminders for the day they committed to. Her own daily dose of kindness set the pace.
One afternoon, Barton talked awhile with an elderly neighbor, who, on most days, sits alone on his porch watching the happenings in the neighborhood. Barton had always been friendly, waving at him or offering a quick hello as she pulled into her driveway or walked her dog. But until that afternoon, she had never stayed awhile with him, asking him questions, listening, without the urge to get up and onto the day’s next task.
On another day, Barton stopped at her family’s favorite doughnut shop north of Dayton and paid for the coffee and doughnuts of the retired veterans seated at the counter, leaving before they found out who footed their bill.
At a local laundromat, she left quarters and laundry detergent.
Her daughters were in on many of the random kind acts, including playing “Ding Dong ditch”—ringing the doorbells of their friends’ houses, then bolting after leaving a box of white fudge Ding Dongs on their doorsteps.
“It made me more mindful to do things, big or small, it really doesn’t matter, just to do something for someone else,” Barton said.
With each act, the ripples were immediate. Barton’s sister fed parking meters in St. Louis. On the beach in Spain, Barton’s friend rented shade umbrellas and beach chairs for a family she didn’t know. One woman gave out 40 compliments to the various people she saw in one day. Another donated money to a school district for children who need lunch money.
The posts from her Facebook group began to show what Barton also experienced, that in focusing on what she could do for others, she and her friends also became more aware of what others did for them, each day. The school bus driver, Barton’s friends at the gym, her coworkers, her mailwoman.
“It became less about what I was doing and more about what people were doing for me.”Alisha Barton
“It became less about what I was doing and more about what people were doing for me,” she said.
One morning, nearly a month after her birthday, Barton was away at a conference and turned on the TV in her hotel room to catch the morning news as she got ready. A host from the “Today” show asked people to post on the show’s Instagram account about acts of kindness they had done. So Barton did.
A few days after her post, the show’s producer called her wanting more information. There was a good chance someone on the show was going to run a story about her the next morning, the producer told her.
Barton was tuned into the “Today” show that next morning, Oct. 8, when her picture appeared on the screen and the show’s host detailed the random acts of kindness, showing some of the photos of what Barton and her Facebook comrades had done—freezer meals made for college students, laundry soap and quarters left at a local laundromat, sticky notes with handwritten uplifting messages posted around town: “Your Smile Is Contagious.”
“It’s really weird to see your face on television,” Barton said. “I’ve had so many people tell me since then that I can never lie about how old I am, because when I turned 40, it made national news.”
Not surprisingly, the “Today” show mention triggered a whole lot of buzz, well beyond the Facebook group Barton had set up. People contacted her from all over the world, many of the places where she used to live, friends, former neighbors, her former Sunday school students.
Though excited, she felt a bit awkward that she was getting all the attention even though her Facebook buddies had played a role, all of their efforts combining to create this positive wave.
“I didn’t do this to be any kind of example, except maybe to my kids. I started this for selfish reasons: I wanted to celebrate my birthday and have my friends involved,” she said.
Her philosophy is sprinkled across the walls of Barton’s home, north of Dayton: If you want to bring happiness to the world, go home and love your family.—Mother Teresa. A painting of the word “grateful” hangs over her fireplace. Another painting reads, “Gather Joy.”
In podcasts she listens to regularly, in the reading she does, Barton hopes kindness can become an automatic response for her, her husband, and their daughters—even when someone gripes to them. Perhaps especially when someone gripes.
“For a while, the thinking was ‘If you’re kind, you’re weak,’ and now things are coming back around to the notion that kindness is not a sign of weakness,” she said. “Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is walk away and not react.”
Growing up, Barton watched how generous her parents were, often to strangers, buying groceries for someone in the store’s line, shoes for a homeless man. Always secretly, not expecting or even wanting acknowledgement.
She feels incredibly lucky to have the family and friends she has and to have lived in so many different places, transplanting herself every few years, except for the seven years she lived in Japan.
When the idea for celebrating a 40th birthday lands a mention on national television, how can anyone top that for the next milestone? What do you do for the 50th? Or even the 41st?
Barton shrugged. “I haven’t thought that far.”
For now, she’s keeping the contagion of kindness going with occasional, small, spontaneous acts: coffee for a friend, more quarters left at the laundromat. She no longer underestimates what even just one act of compassion, albeit small, seemingly random, can inspire in someone else.