Guerrilla acts of kindness on the streets of Syracuse

The American Bear project encouraged locals to share random acts of kindness with strangers on the streets.

“You have a beautiful smile; it just lit up my day. Thank you for that,” read a sticky note that Peter Espenson gave to a stranger on James Street this past Saturday evening.

The recipient was taken aback at first, but tentatively took the note, read it, and smiled more broadly.

Espenson accepted her thanks with a nod and carried on his way. After all, he was on a mission: he had more notes to pass out and more strangers to make smile that day.

Photo: Liz McInerney
Participants write out sticky notes after receiving the instructions for "Mission #2: Pass It On."

Espenson, along with 45 others, was part of “Kindness Captured,” a group that spent the day performing random acts of kindness to complete strangers all around Syracuse.

Participants were broken into groups of three­­ to five people and sent to various locations around the city. They were given different “missions” or tasks to complete that ranged from creating mix tapes to buying and handing out water bottles in the July heat.

The event ran from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and was organized by American Bear, a foundation aimed at breaking down the barriers between strangers.

American Bear’s founding members Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano want to show society that they can trust their fellow man and that connecting with strangers is a wonderful, not scary, thing.

“I want people to know that they will have generally positive experiences if they let their guard down” Grano said.

And to test Grano’s theory, several dozen people took to the streets of Syracuse. Their conclusion: Grano is half-right. Espenson and his two friends Michael Riley and Dellareese Jackson had some trouble getting people to trust them.

Strangers would be weary, giving them odd glances or initially avoiding eye contact. In one mini-mart, the owner was even about to ask them to leave before they produced a sticky note that made a customer smile.

Men seemed to have a particularly hard time getting people to open up.

“It is interesting the role that sex and gender have,” Sellman acknowledged. “It is something we would like to explore further.”

After their initial trepidation, most strangers accepted the groups with a nod or a genuine smile of thanks.

“I do it for the smiles,” Jackson said. “The first few people I encountered didn’t smile for me, but the last woman gave me a huge smile; that made my day. That made it worth it.”

American Bear’s next event is July 29 at The Mission Restaurant in downtown Syracuse.

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