Awards honor kindness in action

The Baltimore Sun

While volunteering at schools and orphanages in India five years ago, Rachael Blair was nearly killed when a taxicab hit the car she was riding in - an experience she later said helped her realize it was time to broaden her work.

Blair, of Severna Park, started the nonprofit organization Kindness in Action, which works to improve education and health for women and children in developing countries.

She has since traveled to Ukraine, Bolivia and Nepal to launch schools, a microlending program that helps women become financially independent, and an eye-screening program that helps children get glasses. But her service does not stop there. Recently, Blair taught 52 classes at Bodkin Elementary School in Pasadena about the lives of the children she met overseas.

Blair helped Bodkin students raise money for Indian schools, hold book and pencil drives and create journals for Indian children. Blair delivered the goods and took pictures of the children receiving the gifts. She brought the pictures back to Bodkin so the students could see the results of their work.

"I would teach the children to have an 'epiphany,'" Blair said, referring to the Bodkin students. "I would tell them, 'It's the bright light that goes on inside of you, where you know what to do - it's kindness.'"

For her work abroad and at home, Blair was one of nine individuals honored yesterday by Sandy Spring Bank at its fourth annual Community Champions Program.

The bank honors people in the following categories: police officer, coach, medical professional, student, business person, family, teacher, senior citizen and firefighter. The winners, selected from 40 nominees, were each given a check for $2,500 to be donated to the charity of their choice.

"Community Champions is everything we stand for as a company," said bank Executive Vice President Frank Small.

Besides Blair, who was honored in the business category, the other winners included:

Police officer: Deputy Sheriff Carrie Richmond, for her work with child support law enforcement in Anne Arundel County and service in the Maryland Air National Guard in Bosnia and South America.

Coach: Richard Dion, a basketball coach at the Stanton Community Center in Annapolis, for his devotion to the children at the center and creating the nonprofit organization Friends of Stanton Center.

Medical professional: Dr. Neil Sullivan, for his work creating a dental clinic at the Stanton Community Center for those unable to afford dental care.

Student: Maroulla Plangetis, a recent graduate of Annapolis High School, for her involvement at school and volunteer work with the conflict-resolution group Kids as Problem Solvers.

Senior citizen: Rich Dobry, for his volunteer work with the Rotary Club of Lake Shore and the Harvest for the Hungry Campaign.

Teacher: Danielle Gofstein, a fourth-grade teacher at Jacobsville Elementary School, for linking American schools with schools in East Africa through the Kenya Connect project.

Family: Mark Thomas, a coordinator at the Clay Street Computer Learning Center in Annapolis, for being a father figure for children without a male role model.

Firefighter: 17-year old Michael Buckingham, who will be a senior at Arundel High School in the fall. Buckingham was nominated by the Anne Arundel Fire Department, where he has been working since October 2005.

Buckingham, or "Buck" as he is known to the other firefighters, was inspired to become a firefighter by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which occurred when he was 12 years old. In 2006 alone, he ran responses to more than 293 calls.

At Bodkin Elementary in Pasadena, Blair is known as the "Kind Lady" after motivating students to look beyond themselves and become more engaged in service projects. Jennifer Elsis, a counselor at Bodkin, said a first-grader led a campaign to collect toothbrushes for impoverished children because, he said, "the Kind Lady told us to be kind."

Blair also lets students experience the culture by dressing in Indian clothing and wearing a traditional bindi - a dot of color - on their foreheads.

"She is teaching kindness to our children in the only authentic way: connecting them to the children in India ... and not exploiting their poverty but showing the beauty of their culture," Elsis said.

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