Human Kind

The glow of kindness, empathy and giving shines brightly here in Madison.
By Shelby Deering | Photographed by Hillary Schave and Lisa Wilcox

Kindness. Compassion. The giving of our time, our money and ourselves. We live in an uncertain world, one in which gun violence, political battles and the distressing stories of displaced refugees are splashed across our social media feeds. More than ever, we are thirsty for empathy, kind words—a feeling of warmth that pulls us in and makes us feel safe. Simply, we have hope that good deeds and sympathetic people can erase the bad in the world.

We see kindness in the tireless volunteer who makes blankets for a local children’s hospital. We see it in the businesses that want to do more than earn the next dollar— they strive to make a real difference in the community. And we can find it in the organizations that look beyond their borders to give aid to those struggling across the globe.

When it comes to kindness and compassion, everybody wins. Spirits are lifted, lives improve and even the brain benefits.

There’s a “kindness revolution” taking place here in Madison, exemplified through the following people, businesses and organizations. In an era marked by disconnect and troubled hearts, a city of less than 250,000 just might inspire the world to be a kinder place.


Kindness not only changes the world around us—it changes our minds, our bodies and our souls.

Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, says, “The research that we have done clearly indicates that acts of generosity and altruism are the most effective ways to activate brain circuits we know are centrally involved in wellbeing. One of the quickest ways to cultivate happiness is by being kind to others. The scientific data confirms that very strongly.”

To encourage empathy in the younger generation, Davidson has developed a kindness curriculum for kids that shares techniques and encourages kindness as a life philosophy. After 12 weeks of testing the curriculum in Madison schools, Davidson found that the kids were better able to self-regulate and received higher grades. Davidson says that he “envisions a time in the not-too-distant future when mental exercise will be as commonly practiced as physical exercise,” something that might one day be a reality for today’s children.

One mental exercise is called “compassion meditation.” Davidson says, “You can use the practice as you’re going through your daily life, as you walk down the street, as you look at another person. You can say in your mind, ‘May you be happy. May you be free of suffering.’ Research shows that changes in your brain behavior can be produced very quickly using these kinds of practices.”

Volunteers Carola Gaines and Pam Hying are already experts in the art of compassion.

Recently, Gaines made a meal at Madison’s Ronald McDonald House, one of many volunteer projects she regularly takes on. But this wasn’t just any meal—it was a Southern dinner, complete with fried chicken, mac and cheese, green beans and potatoes. A fellow volunteer told Gaines, “Wow! I’ve been here six years, and I’ve never tasted food this good here.”

Gaines says, “It was a good feeling to assist the volunteers that work so hard to give the families some sense of support in moments and weeks of crisis.”

This experience is one of many in Gaines’ life. She is a BadgerCare Plus outreach program coordinator through Unity Health Insurance. She’s also an active member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and is involved in several organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Health, the African American Health Network of Dane County and 100 Black Men of Madison.

Gaines, who has been volunteering since high school, says that she experiences “hope, joy, encouragement and fulfillment of purpose,” through showing kindness to others. She says, “Serving is who I am—it is part of every breath I take. I am here on earth to serve and care for others.”

Pam Hying’s road to volunteerism all started when she turned 50. “I wanted to do something that represented my 50 years of life, and I thought, Why not help others?”

That single thought sparked a goal of participating in 50 community initiatives by the end of 2016. Hying, who works as the individual and Medicare supplement sales representative at Group Health Cooperative, has reached that goal and then some.

She has helped a co-worker with a medical condition do errands, made blankets for a children’s hospital through Project Linus and organized food drives at Miller & Sons Supermarket.

She rallies friends and co-workers to join in volunteer projects through an e-mail list, adding new team members weekly. She is also the founding president of the Kiwanis of Verona.

What inspires Hying’s tidal wave of kindness?

“I grew up in a single-parent home with three sisters. This is my way of saying thank you to those who helped us in the past, by paying it forward as an adult,” she says.

Hying, who has been known to be left in tears after particularly touching volunteer experiences, is the embodiment of Davidson’s research, saying, “Helping others makes me happy—when you’re happy, you’re more active and productive.


Although there are many government and nonprofit organizations that seek to solve social issues, the reality is that time and money can be in short supply, and that’s where the private sector can step up. “Businesses are poised to help bridge the resource gap through charitable giving and by leveraging many of the competencies that have brought so much talent and financial success to their organizations,” says Trevor Nagle, a professor at the School of Business at Edgewood College.

In addition to “bridging resource gaps,” philanthropic practices benefit the businesses themselves.

Professor Denis Collins, Nagle’s colleague, says, “In terms of employee relations, researchers report that employees of organizations known for their community citizenship contributions are more engaged in their work tasks, have higher levels of camaraderie and are more prone to creative and innovative thinking.”

Nagle agrees, saying, “Encouraging employee participation in fundraising or volunteer efforts in the community helps instill this sense of purpose and team-building.”

Altruism can also improve a business’ standing in the community.

“Community giving greatly enhances a company’s reputation. Companies become recognized as a responsible neighbor and earn tremendous community goodwill and support,” says Collins.

And simply, giving can be good for business.

Collins says, “A company’s reputation as a good citizen favorably impacts employee, customer, community and investor relations, all of which has a very positive impact on a company’s financial performance.”

Companies such as American Family Insurance and Exact Sciences are experiencing these benefits and, in turn, are spreading kindness throughout the Madison community. So, too, are organizations like Overture Center for the Arts, which receives generous local corporate support from around 70 sponsors (including Exact Sciences), that it then spins out into programming to bring arts to the community.

Philanthropy has been a top priority for American Family Insurance since its doors first opened in 127. The company fosters a passion for generosity through the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools’ Adopt-a-School program, forming partnerships with Sherman Middle School and East High School alongside over 60 area businesses and organizations.

“These partnerships are really a combination of financial and people support,” says Justin Cruz, strategic data and analytics vice president of American Family Insurance. Cruz is an “exec sponsor” for the program alongside colleague Jim St. Vincent, human resources vice president.

St. Vincent says, “We’ve had many, many volunteers from human resources take on a wide variety of activities to support the students, teachers and staff,” including providing breakfast on Teacher Appreciation Day and offering training on writing resumes and interview skills. Donations have ranged from gathering school supplies and winter clothing to increasing school endowment funds.

Michael Hernandez, principal of East High School, says, “American Family and many other partners aren’t helping our students, staff and families for any other reason than they want to improve our community and support our kids.”

Principal Kristin Foreman of Sherman Middle School, says, “American Family’s support has allowed us to provide meaningful experiences for our staff, students and families.”

Exact Sciences is already bettering people’s lives through the development of Cologuard, the first and only FDA-approved non-invasive colorectal cancer-screening test.

For this health care company, helping people doesn’t stop there. Exact Sciences employees also help the United Way of Dane County through fundraising efforts and volunteer opportunities.

Kevin Conroy, chairman and CEO of Exact Sciences and United Way’s 2016 campaign chair, says, “We have team members who really champion this cause and develop fun, creative campaigns.”

The company encourages a spirit of altruism among employees, matching donations through United Way campaigns and a program called Exact Sciences Gives. They also offer eight hours of paid volunteer time per year to each employee.

Conroy believes in United Way because he says that the organization “solves real problems.”

“I grew up in Flint, Michigan. I saw what happened as the auto industry started to falter and companies’ commitment to the community dwindled. We don’t ever want that to be the case here in Madison. If we see people in our community suffering, we want to help. We want to build connections to the community that are really deep, so we are part of what makes Madison a great place to live.”

The Overture Center for the Arts knows that much like practicing kindness, experiencing the arts can enrich our lives, bodies and souls, things that can make Madison an even better place to live. “Art is always part of emotional wellbeing and provides joy, happiness and stimulation,” says Ted DeDee, president and CEO of Overture Center. The nonprofit knows this, and has developed a robust offering of community programming. Outreach and engagement efforts include Kids in the Rotunda, free performances that inspire and educate children, the Tommy Awards, an initiative that celebrates high school musical theater, and Overture’s Rising Stars, a showcase of community talent.

Overture’s impressive programming has cultivated the next generation of artists, like Alex Haunty, who won the 2015 Young Philanthropist of the Year Award for using profits from the sale of his paintings to bring students with disabilities to see shows at Overture. Or Tatyana Lubov, who participated in the Tommy Awards and was cast as Cinderella in the national touring Broadway production.

DeDee has seen what the arts can do in a community, fostering creativity, fresh perspectives and increased happiness.

He says, “Our community inspires us. We love to see happy  faces within our walls, and they are at the heart of how we program, plan and provide access to the visual and performing arts.”


Giving back to the local community is important work. But some organizations take it a step further, looking beyond their backyards to the global stage. Giving internationally and showing compassion to world populations has become top-of-mind for many, generating help for causes such as Syrian refugees, those affected by Hurricane Matthew and more.  According to Giving USA, a public service initiative of The Giving Institute, international affairs experienced a large giving increase in 2015, receiving 17.5 percent more than the previous year. There are several Madison nonprofits and organizations that are taking kindness to a global level, including Blumont and Serrv.

Launched in January 2016, Blumont, under the umbrella of International Relief & Development, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization responsible for implementing relief and development programs, is already spreading kindness and compassion throughout the world from its Madison headquarters. Blumont leverages advanced technologies and delivers practical, sustainable solutions to areas that see their fair share of challenges. The organization has delivered relief supplies to war-torn regions, utilizing mobile phone networks and satellite technology to ensure that every parcel was delivered to families in need in Syria, Iraq and Jordan. They’ve worked to refurbish irrigation canals and wells in Afghanistan and the West Bank. Ultimately, they’re providing much-needed help to refugees and other beleaguered groups.

Roger Ervin, president & CEO of Blumont and International Relief & Development, says, “It’s a tremendous opportunity to apply my experience and skills to make a difference every day for real people facing some of the largest issues of our time, such as the conflicts and other disruptions that have displaced tens of millions of people from their homes. While we are a global organization, we work at the community level. That is where real change occurs, whether it is in Madison or a village in West Africa.”

As you step into a Serrv retail space (on State and Monroe streets), you’ll be greeted with vibrant jewelry, clothing and décor items, often festooned with intricate embroidery or beading. The products are stunning, but they also do a lot of good in the world. Serrv is a nonprofit, fair trade organization that works with marginalized artisans and farmers in 25 countries to develop high-quality, beautiful items. Their earnings lift them from poverty and improve their lives.

Serrv has seen firsthand that kindness can make a global impact. Sara Swartzendruber, Serrv’s marketing communications manager, says, “It’s good for the world because it is building positive relationships and connections which create peace. When more of us catch on to this idea of positive change, Serrv can place more orders, more artisans will be hired at workshops and more families will be impacted. Livelihoods are improved and communities are strengthened. And back home, we have this great connection to artisan families on the other side of the world and know that we’re making the world a better, more sustainable place for all of us. That’s a true ripple effect.”

Kindness, then, truly is a powerful thing.

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