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What does kindness mean to you? How your ideas could be painted on a mural in Austin

Before the pandemic, the South Congress Avenue Amy's Ice Creams would draw a crowd on a nice day. Amy's Ice Creams founder Amy Simmons and the Kindness Campaign founder Andra Liemandt are hoping the mural also will bring people to the spot safely during the pandemic and beyond.

Austin-based nonprofit organization the Kindness Campaign has a question: 

"What does kindness mean to you?"

The answers will become part of a community art mural being developed in a partnership among the Kindness Campaign; HOPE Campaign, which connects artists to causes; Texas Cultural Trust; and Amy's Ice Creams.

Why Amy's? The mural will take over the entire building of the South Congress Avenue location of the ice cream chain. It's an ideal, highly visible setting that's viewable coming from the Capitol. This mural will sit across the street from the now-iconic "I Love You So Much" mural at Jo's Coffee. 

The mural covering the whole building, says Amy's Ice Creams founder Amy Simmons, "is going to be spectacular." That location makes an impression even though "it's this little tiny building in a sea of growing bigger buildings." 

The artist for the mural is being chosen now by the committee, and a low-key groundbreaking will happen Feb. 17, but until then, people can contribute their answers to "What does kindness mean to you?" to the mural project at tkckindness.org.

Some of the answers so far: "Holding the hand of someone in need of support";  "Kindness is compassion and empathy for others"; "Justice"; and "Kindness means fun times with friends."

Amy Simmons, the founder of Amy's Ice Creams, liked the idea of repainting the South Congress Avenue restaurant with words of kindness.

The Kindness Campaign is using the mural for multiple purposes: First, it's about spreading kindness and good thoughts throughout the community.

"The mural came from a place with my team where we wanted to allow our community to come together and have a voice, where everybody's voice could shine and know that their voices could matter," said the Kindness Campaign founder Andra Liemandt.

"We've had such a hard year. We can all look to each other for inspiration and kindness. There is goodness, and we're all rooting for each other."

Liemandt is part of the band the Mrs., and she watched all their plans for gigs get shut down when the pandemic began in March.

Andra Liemandt created the Kindness Campaign after the death of a friend's child because of bullying. The campaign's mission is to teach kindness to younger kids. She's also the drummer for the band the Mrs.

The mural also is about creating a space where people could come together, but it needed to have a place where it could be seen.

That's where Amy's Ice Creams came in; putting it in a highly visible spot set the right mood. "I've never had ice cream and been in a bad mood," Liemandt said. "If I was in a bad mood, I can't remember a time where sprinkles on my ice cream didn't make me feel more wonderful."

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Liemandt knew of Simmons from a group they both participated in, but they had never had a conversation. Melinda Garvey of Austin Woman magazine connected them. 

What Liemandt didn't know was that Simmons had thought about redoing the building's current mural but had not because "our customers were attached to the funky SoCo characters."

The South Congress Avenue Amy's Ice Creams store will get a new mural next month over the entire building.

This project appealed to Simmons because "it's marrying so many things of value to us and Andra. It's mental health for young people, creativity and art, and doing things in eclectic ways."

Simmons thinks of Amy's Ice Creams as both an ice cream store and as a "front for a youth development corporation." 

Working at Amy's is often people's first job. "We practice open-book management; we teach entrepreneurship and finance and what it might look like if you have a business. ... We see growth in people and an opportunity to feel proud," Simmons says.

Starting Feb. 17, the exterior of Amy's Ice Creams on South Congress Avenue will be repainted with a mural inspired by the Kindness Campaign. People can pay to have their words included, and money raised will go toward programs from the nonprofit Kindness Campaign.

Fundraising in a pandemic

The mural also is a way to raise money for the Kindness Campaign. People contribute $100 or more to be part of the mural project and add their answer to the virtual wall up now and the physical wall later. The money goes to support the Kindness Campaign programs and the mural program.

A QR code painted on the building will tell the story of the mural and thank the sponsors of the mural project.

How to fundraise during a pandemic has been a problem many local nonprofits have been trying to solve. A traditional gala isn't an option; virtual galas have been hit-and-miss in terms of ability to raise enough funds. Fundraising right now requires creativity and remembering the mission of the organization.

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"Our mission is big," Liemandt says. "Our mission is to help children starting at age 3 and all the way up to adults. Mental, emotional health is such a big focus, more so than ever." 

Contributors to the virtual Kindness Campaign mural can see their words online. The virtual mural will be added to even after the physical mural is painted.

When the pandemic started, the Kindness Campaign pivoted from school-based in-person learning about kindness to virtual programming that includes an online portal of resources.

The pandemic has created an opportunity for the Kindness Campaign to offer its curriculum to more elementary school students and to expand that curriculum, including offering videos online.

The Kindness Campaign has created a curriculum around the mural. The students it serves can add messages to the wall as part of a teachable moment. 

The Kindness Campaign has worked with groups including the Boys & Girls Clubs, Matthew McConaughey's Just Keep Livin Foundation and students in Title I schools to get them involved in creating words for the mural. That work is funded by mural donations.

Once you've added your message of kindness to the virtual mural, you can see other messages. The messages are being approved before they are posted.

Creating the mural

Texas Cultural Trust and HOPE Campaign are helping Amy's and the Kindness Campaign work through selecting a mural artist and getting it painted, as well as a plan to maintain it.

Simmons says she's looking for a mural that fits within the culture and values of Amy's, which has committed to it being up for at least a year.

What happens after that will depend on how customers are interacting with it. "Are they taking pictures with it or is it just another mural?" she says. 

Simmons loves the possibility of it being part of creating memories for people, just like the photo booths Amy's has had in its stores. 

Liemandt sees it as sparking conversation and changing the way we are as a community. "My hope for this project is that we have a narrative in our community of inspiration around kindness," Liemandt says. 

She says the mural is about creating a ripple effect of what kindness is, "where we start showing up differently, the way we know we need to."

Nicole Villalpando writes about philanthropies for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at nvillalpando@statesman.com.