When Ashraf Blell ‘14 completed his “26 Acts of Kindness” project in his Presentational Speaking class before Christmas break in 2012, little did he know the project would change his life - and the lives of countless others - forever!
On February 17, Blell will make his third trip in three months to the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass. Avenue in Boston to distribute food and clothing to the homeless - an effort which is propelling him to a new career in service.
“The class project instilled in me the desire to do acts of kindness,” Blell said. “It can be little things - a nice note on someone’s car, or buying someone a cup of coffee,” he said.
But the project has mushroomed far beyond little things. While attending college in Florida, Blell made gift bags for the homeless. When returning to Massachusetts to continue his education, he and a college friend, Nick Bonasoro, decided to take a bigger step by providing some of Boston’s homeless with food and clothing, even if the pair had to use their own money to do so.
“Money isn’t the issue,” Blell said. “The most important thing for me in life is to see a smile on someone’s face at the end of the day.”
Blell chose what he called the “perfect” place to make the first delivery - an intersection where he saw homeless people when he traveled to and from the city. With the help of family and friends, who made sandwiches and provided other foods and clothing donations, he and Bonasoro made their first delivery on December 27.
“People gave us hugs for giving them food and clothes,” Blell said. “We both felt amazing afterward. Helping them lets them know that there is someone out there who cares for them, and it shows there is still goodness in humanity.”
With their first delivery completed, “We both agreed we wanted to do it again,” Blell said, ”but we needed to make it bigger.”
For the second trip, Blell and Bonasoro established a GoFundMe web page, and again made sandwiches (bringing the total to more than 200!), collected clothing from family and friends, and for the first time, obtained donations of pizzas from Little Caesar’s, coffee and donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts, and sponsorship from Bay Shore Athletics in Braintree.
“I just wanted to make a difference in the world,” Blell said. “Even if it touches just one person’s life, it’s worth it.”
Blell knows how important it is to help others. When he returned to Massachusetts and was looking for work while attending college, Tim Dowling, the owner of Bay Shore Athletics, provided him with a job working at the health club’s front desk. “I was in a rough spot and Tim really helped me out,” Blell said.
When Dowling and his wife Audra heard what Blell was doing for the homeless, they contributed $100 towards to the second delivery set for January 14. With help from their manager, Korina Nigro, they provided floor space for a collection box and counter space for flyers and a collection jar. Blell also placed flyers at TD Bank, Archbishop Williams High School and other locations, bringing in more donations in cash, food and clothing. Meanwhile Blell and Bonasoro spread the word through social media.
Blell was first inspired to act by Speech teacher Stephanie Mariano ‘08, who just days after the killing of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, learned about a tweet by former Today Show host Anne Curry which said, “Imagine if everyone could commit to doing one act of kindness for every one of those children killed in Newtown.” Curry, and Mariano, soon upped the number of acts from 20 to 26 to include the teachers killed that day.
“Ash has really taken off with this and done something every year since he graduated in 2014,” said Mariano, who has made the project a yearly one for her class. “I think it’s fantastic and so cool that he’s come up with this project. I’m psyched for him. To see his success, and that he is so happy with it, makes it all worthwhile.”
“I love Ms. Mariano,” said Blell, who brought tears to Mariano’s eyes when he visited AWHS to tell her about the project. “If it wasn’t for her, this probably wouldn’t have started.”
Gus Lawlor, who retired from AWHS in 2017, was Blell’s Social Studies teacher and is now one of his helpers.
“Ash was an amazing young man from the first,” said Lawlor. “His lunch table was known as the ‘United Nations’ due to his inclusion of international students and those of all colors and ethnicities. Besides his athletic and physical prowess, he was fully involved in the theater program as stage manager and Tech Crew captain. His work ethic was always evident in my History I class, as was his curiosity. Ash turned his childhood escape from war torn Sierra Leone and his journey to the U.S. into a presentation for his classmates and it was one of the most impactful moments of the year. I am not in the least bit surprised that he is involved in this project to better the lives of folks in his community. It has been a pleasure being his 'Papa G.' and watching this amazing young man come into his own.”
Blell, who is majoring in Exercise Health Science at University of Mass., Boston, is now thinking long-term about working as a social worker. To further that goal, he’s applying to be a mentor for the Big Brother Big Sister Association of Massachusetts, and beyond that, either establishing a non-profit organization, or working for one that would make a difference in people’s lives.
“Life has instilled in me the desire to help others,” Blell said. “I literally love helping people! I love seeing people happy! It’s the best feeling in the world!”