Ben’s Bells Will Open Downtown Studio on Friday

January 18, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Jeannette Maré has made a cottage industry out of kindness with her Ben’s Bells Project.

Ben’s Bells started in her garage eight years ago as a way to channel her grief in the year following the sudden death of her son, Ben, who was not quite three years old.

Jeannette Mare with the colorfully decorated outdoor sink in the courtyard at Ben's Bells' new home.

Two years of crafting small ceramic bells in her garage led to a studio on Geronimo Plaza at Main Gate Square, where Ben’s Bells have been fashioned since 2005.

Ben’s Bells has thousands of volunteer visits a year to produce some 3,000 bells, and so far the project has spun off to seven other groups across the country. The kindness message behind the bells has rung out so loudly that Maré needed more space.

“We were looking Downtown only,” said Maré, executive director at Ben’s Bells. “Downtown was the only place. I’m a long-time Tucsonan. I’ve watched the ups and downs. To watch it come back, I just love it. I want to be a part of it.”

Ben’s Bells has its grand opening Friday, January 20, in its new quarters in the oldest part of the Charles O. Brown House, 40 West Broadway, which dates back to 1840 and is regarded as the oldest building in Tucson. People can drop by any time from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., though the brown bag open house lunch is set for 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and the ribbon cutting will be at 5:30 p.m.

The ancient art of firing ceramic bells in kilns fits so appropriately in the mid-19th century ambience of the Brown House and its courtyard.

“This came from a long search,” Maré said. “I spent a good eight months looking. People made us really good offers. I got connected with big people Downtown. The Arizona Historical Society (which owns the Brown House) needed somebody to take care of this building. We want that job.”

The Brown House venue more than triples the production capability for Ben’s Bells. Maré is adding three kilns at the Brown House site to the one kiln that will remain at the University Boulevard studio.

Jeannette Mare shows off the new kiln dubbed "Amazing Grace".

The Brown House has three indoor studios, a gift shop that doubles as the volunteer sign-in desk, and a dedicated office for Maré.

“I don’t have my own office over there,” she said about Main Gate. “As we grow, my job becomes more serious. I need my own office.”

Ben’s Bells can have 70 people working indoors Downtown compared to 25 people at Main Gate. Plus, the courtyard space at the Brown House can accommodate 100 bell makers compared to 75 on Geronimo Plaza.

The bells are hung throughout town with the intention of people finding them and keeping them as a gesture of kindness.

“We’re hanging about 3,000 bells a year,” Maré said.

Ben’s Bells also makes 40,000 to 50,000 ceramic kindness coins a year, and the project recently added “Be Kind, Step Up” bracelets for University of Arizona and local high school students.

Maré has even developed kindness curriculums for schools and businesses. She spreads the “be kind” message in 117 local schools, and about a dozen local businesses have adopted her kindness campaigns, which results in a kind employee getting “belled” each month.

“The idea is to create a culture of kindness,” Maré said. “We have to consciously talk about it and teach it.”

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In the age of caustic political campaigns and discord around the globe, one could think there is no way a “be kind” campaign could gain traction. Maré found precisely the opposite to be the real truth, one that is artistically inscribed on the outdoor sink: “Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness.”

She learned from her own experience that kindness, even kindness from strangers, is crucial to get through tragedy and tough times – which is an inevitable human experience.

“The kindness thing is universal,” Maré said. “It is important that this was born out of my sad story.”

In 2002, her son Ben developed sudden croup and his airway swelled shut and he passed away.

“I was amazed how normal I looked outside and how broken I was inside,” Maré recalled. “Any time somebody would do an act of kindness for me, I felt I had something to hold on to. I just started appreciating the gestures like I never had before. It was a lifesaver for me. I wanted to do something to honor Ben and I had to communicate this message that kindness is way more important than we realize.”

Soon after Ben’s death, she visited her parents in Waldport, Oregon. An artist there had strewn the beach with artistic glass fishing floats for people to find.

“It was this unexpected joy for people,” she said. “People were talking about it. You could feel the good will out there.”

The artistic fishing floats planted an idea in her mind.

“I had a little clay background. A friend had a kiln,” Maré said. “My family owned a paint-it-yourself pottery studio (before Ben died). It all came together.”

By the first anniversary of Ben’s death, about 30 friends had created 400 Ben’s Bells in Maré’s garage.

Maré first put the Ben’s Bells Project under the nonprofit umbrella of Tu Nidito until she got her own nonprofit status. Then she got strong support from the Marshall Foundation, which owns Main Gate Square.

“Tu Nidito got us started and the Marshall Foundation gave us our home,” she said. “From there, more partnerships have take us where we are.”

Ben’s Bells now has more than 100 partnerships.

Benn's Bells is in the oldest section of the historic Charles O. Brown House.

“The concept is unique enough that other organizations can use us for their own missions,” she said. “We do a lot of booths and tables at events.”

Right from the start, Maré’s drive for kindness struck a nerve. Even before January 8, 2011, Ben’s Bells flourished.

“People that had experienced tragedy, they understood. After January 8, the community understood about it. People were saying ‘I understand the real meaning of this.’ There is something that speaks to every one of us. It’s not a Pollyanna thing. It’s hard to be kind. How can we be more kind?” Maré said.

Her message is especially well received by children.

“Because I present at some area schools, I can see the longing for this,” she said. “Even the most jaded kids in high school, you can get through to them. Again, it’s that whole universal need thing. This is just a feel we need right now.”

National media coverage that came with the January 8 mass shooting brought calls to Ben’s Bells from many cities that wanted the project in their towns. Maré picked those that she felt were truly committed to the effort required and now sister Ben’s Bells operations are active in Phoenix, Denver, Portland, Idaho, North Carolina, New Jersey and Maryland.

Maré intends to open her third studio in the spring in Phoenix.

Ben’s Bells has five full-time staff, plus four hourly employees and six interns.

The Downtown studio will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays. The studio will also be open each month during 2nd Saturdays.