One small act of kindness can spread to influence thousands of lives. Just ask Jeanie Studnek Owens (AS ’78), an elementary school teacher whose idea to teach her students about service and compassion transformed into a quickly growing organization that helps homeless children across the country.
It all started when Owens noticed that some of her sixth-grade students were having a hard time being kind to each other and thinking beyond themselves. “I wanted to teach them more than just academics,” she says. “I wanted to teach them about kindness and compassion, because as an educator, I believe that it is equally, or sometimes more important than just your sound academic foundation.”
She started a club for her students called RAK (Random Acts of Kindness), encouraging them to do small, simple acts of service for their classmates throughout the day. The idea took off, and soon the entire school was participating in RAK. “It was a huge improvement,” Owens remarks. “When we started doing compassionate service activities, it made them more aware that there's more going on in their world than just playing with their friends. They had a bigger, broader picture, and it changed the way they treated each other. . . . They were excited about giving back.”
So excited, in fact, that they wanted to do more. Owens and her students started thinking about what they could do to help homeless children in their community. “We thought, ‘What do they need?’ They're coming into these shelters, a lot of them are coming right off the streets, or they’ve been sleeping on a relative’s couch, some of them have been displaced.” They decided to collect items for “nighttime essentials” kits that could be given to local homeless shelters. “All kids like stuffed animals, a blanket to hang onto, a book to read to give them comfort,” Owens explains. “So that’s what we decided we were going to collect: gently used or new children’s books, a fleece blanket, a stuffed animal, and a new toothbrush.” These items were assembled into canvas tote bags and delivered to homeless shelters by Owens’s students. As word spread and interest grew, Project Sleep Tight USA was born.
Project Sleep Tight USA started working with three shelters in Arizona in February 2012. Now, four years later, forty shelters from Kaysville, Utah, to Tucson, Arizona, are receiving the tote bags. Some are also going to refugee children at centers in Salt Lake. According to Project Sleep Tight USA's website, more than 2,000 tote bags are donated to these shelters every year. Owens says that she has gotten an overwhelming response from shelters, thanking her and requesting even more orders of tote bags to distribute. “I’ve gotten emails from some of the shelters, saying what a huge blessing it is for these children. . . . When they go through the intake process into the shelter, they come in sometimes with nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing. . . . When they give these children one of our tote bags, it’s like a bridge that they’re building for the child to help them feel more at ease, more comfortable.”
Demand for these Sleep Tight kits continues to increase, and Owens is doing her best to keep up. Despite having retired from teaching, she is as busy as ever with Project Sleep Tight USA and her efforts to help kids in her community. “I just want them all to have the very best opportunity possible, even though their life circumstances may have handed them something very sad like homelessness. That’s no fault of the child. . . . I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I love what I do. My husband calls me a service junkie. I truly love doing it.”