Glen Burnie High graduate Briah Barksdale wraps her community — and herself — with kindness

Rachael Pacella

Kindness is wrapped around Glen Burnie High School graduate Briah Barksdale.

It’s wrapped around her wrist on a beaded black string bracelet, embellished with a heart. She uses the bracelet to count her daily acts of kindness.

It’s wrapped around her life like a preserver, keeping her afloat through times of grief. She has had plenty — her father died in a motorcycle accident when she was 12 and, on April 10, 2017, her mother died of liver cancer. Her grandmother died that same day.

Volunteerism is how she coped.

She was out of the country helping people in the Dominican Republic when her mother Denise Hunter-Cook died, and she said the former gospel singer’s caring demeanor is a source of inspiration for her.

“My mom always told me if somebody says something bad to you, you should pray for them and move on,” she said.

Maybe, she said, that person will internalize the kindness you showed and share it with others.

“You just never know how it affects people, unless they tell you,” she said.

She has volunteered more than 400 hours during her four years of high school. And, as an upperclassman, Barksdale strived to bring her message of kindness to her classmates through a capstone project for the school’s BioMedical Allied Health program.

She needed to find a problem and solve it. She decided she wanted to take negative mindsets and change them into positive ones, and called it the Kindness Campaign.

She recently presented information about her campaign and accompanying research on the impact of altruism to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who visited an Anne Arundel County elementary school on May 31 to learn more about building a positive school environment.

Barksdale started aspects of the campaign her junior year, when she organized a competition where doors throughout the school were decorated with positive or kind messages. She placed inspirational messages on sticky notes on girls’ bathroom mirrors in summer 2017, so students would have something kind to see on that first day.

“The way you present yourself and the way you go about your day definitely has an affect on how your health is,” she said.

At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, she gave out advice cards to about 350 incoming ninth-graders to help them adjust to the new environment.

She coordinated the sharing of a “kindness necklace,” which students passed from person to person. When a student saw someone with the necklace on, they would give them a compliment and then get the necklace, and so on. She also shared the kindness bracelets — an idea she picked up from a school counselor at Quarterfield Elementary School.

She sponsored an activity where students got points for asking teachers and other staff members questions such as “What’s your pet peeve?” or “Why did you start teaching?” so they would get to know everyone in the building.

“Teachers ask about us, but we forget to ask about them,” she said.

The school’s principal, Vickie Plitt, said the campaign had a positive impact on the school, and said it was a pleasure to watch Barksdale grow as a person during her time at Glen Burnie.

“As she matured, her focus on others and how she could service her community really grew,” Plitt said.

Barksdale is headed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she will study biology as part of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The program provides financial assistance for students interested in pursuing a doctorate in science or engineering.

Students also need to have an interest in the “advancement of minorities in science and related fields,” according to the program’s website. She won’t get much of a rest between high school and college because of a six-week Summer Bridge residential program that prepares the scholars for their first semester. She graduated Glen Burnie High on Monday and arrived at UMBC on Saturday.

Barksdale wants to be a obstetrician-gynecologist. The 18-year-old also said she has two courses from Harvard Medical School’s online HMX program under her belt — immunology and physiology.

The body and how it changes and reacts to different situations fascinates her — things like how antibodies are made, why cancer is so hard to treat, the different T cells and B cells, and why your skin turns red when you cut yourself.

“I just like putting the puzzle pieces together and understanding how we as humans work,” she said.

She has been infatuated with doctor’s offices from a young age. She wouldn’t shift her eyes away when her blood was drawn as a child.

“I love the smell of the doctor’s office, or when the secretaries (are) typing in your number. Just the sound of how fast she was typing — that was really intriguing,” she said.

As for the Kindness Campaign, she said other students have already stepped up to carry on her effort.

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