Heart of the Treasure Valley: One person can empower many

A Boise teen learns how much you can do through random acts of kindness

kjones@idahostatesman.comFebruary 9, 2014 

Carleigh Coba is a ninth-grader at Hillside Junior High School

Carleigh Coba is a ninth-grader at Hillside Junior High School, 14 years old, and just one person. But she’s learning about and experiencing the power of one person to make a difference — whether it’s a leader like Nelson Mandela, or she and her friends saying nice things to people. “Random acts of kindness,” she says. “I think I’ll be doing that all my life, paying it forward, keeping that in my mind. … It can make a big impact.”

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

  • PAY IT FORWARD

    “Paying it forward” happens when the beneficiary of a good deed repays it to others instead of to the original benefactor. The concept goes back deep into history, but the idea gathered speed after a 2000 book and movie, both called “Pay It Forward.” The concept in the book and movie introduces an obligation to do three good things for others in response to a good deed that one receives, with the implication of creating a social movement to make the world a better place.

    Pay It Forward day is Thursday, April 24, 2014. Link to the website at IdahoStatesman.com/Heart

She didn’t think she was scared of heights until she got up that high — 70 feet in a tree. She had climbed the tree — voluntarily — as part of a team-building exercise with her school, but now perched on a tiny ledge, she wasn’t so sure about what she had gotten herself into.

She surveyed her options, and there weren’t many. She could freak out; she could call it quits. Or she could mobilize her fear for the final challenge: a skinny rope quivering at treetop level, stretched to another anchor point. She had on a harness, so if she fell, she wouldn’t crash to the ground — but still.

Down below, way too far down below at the bottom of the tree, her classmates stood. Watching. Waiting. And cheering her on.

She says: “Friends gotta support you. … When you don’t have any (support), then it’s hard to keep going …

“Seeing my friends wanting me to do this thing and supporting me — and wanting me to succeed. … ”

She counted to three and stepped onto the rope. And kept going.

“A lot of times if you don’t do something, you regret it for a long time. … So I did everything.”

Carleigh Coba was 13 years old last year when she and her classmates at Anser Charter School climbed the tree and discovered that the solution to most of the challenges — as in life — was to believe in yourself. And teamwork. When Carleigh was on one end of a rope and her classmates were on the other, holding her so she wouldn’t fall, there was one more lesson:

“I had to trust them a lot. But if (I) trusted them and they supported (me), then I could do it. I could go across, or jump off the thing.

“It felt great.”

Propelled by that confidence, when a teacher introduced the concept of Pay It Forward, Carleigh and her friends brainstormed the “I am Beautiful” project into being.

Armed with posters that said “I am _______ and beautiful,” five girls went Downtown to execute their project: showering people with compliments. They also invited passers-by to fill in the blank and have their photos taken. Bald, hairy, gay, freckled, funny, creative, crazy, steadfast, confident — and beautiful.

“(The goal was) people seeing themselves as beautiful and not having to be society’s norm — like you have to have the perfect look — and just having them feel better about themselves.

“I think the majority of people who don’t feel good about themselves, or don’t think they look good, are basically my age. Teenagers don’t feel very good about themselves usually, and there are so many suicides about that, too.

“It’s really sad, somebody’s taking their own life because they don’t think they’re good enough.”

It could be said that passing out compliments is a little thing — like her classmates cheering from the bottom of the tree.

“ … You never know what people take out of it. But if one word can help somebody’s day. … ”

Or maybe — it’s everything.

“If you’re nice to everybody and you aren’t just thinking about yourself, then there’s going to be a lot more nicer people in the world.”

Carleigh hones her point with a story about a deceptively simple card game that a teacher had them play — with a big lesson. Each team had blue cards and red cards. Playing blue earned points, but if they played red, they lost lots of points. However, if both teams played red, everyone gained.

“One time playing the blue card sets it up for disaster… The problem is that people get greedy and want more points.

“ … When somebody wins, somebody loses. But if we can compromise, we’re both not losing. … If we work together, then everybody wins.”

And, she continues, she had another insight as students tried to figure out a strategy for the game.

“It’s really hard because nobody listens to each other. But if we open our ears and listen to each other. …

“If we stop keeping our minds only on our side and let other people talk, then maybe we can come to the middle and find something we both can be proud of.”

Like, for instance, Carleigh’s brother wants to use, oh, say, the computer, and so does she.

“We can either share it or just take turns. It’s a silly example, but it does work.

“ … The Golden Rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated. And compromise. I think a lot more could get done.”

At the heart of what Carleigh is shining a light on boils down to simple respect.

“As I get older, too, that’s what you learn in history … you just learn that everybody’s equal. That’s what the Declaration of Independence says. … I think that’s what I’ve been learning all my life.

“ … Nobody wants to feel unequal. I know I don’t. I think that’s important.”

In eighth grade, as part of a year of interdisciplinary studies about Africa, Carleigh’s class turned their attention to South Africa, where they looked in depth at apartheid. For a couple of weeks, each student took on a role: white, black or colored. Carleigh played the role of a black South African, and each student gave a speech from his or her point of view.

“I gave my speech and said that we were humans and should be treated with equality, and that we had to stop obeying these laws put against (us). I said that if only one person stood against the laws, then we wouldn’t get anywhere. But if we all stuck together, we could overcome this discrimination.

“ … Once the experiment was over, I knew the fear and injustice I felt were nothing compared to what black South Africans felt in reality. I had new and great respect for Nelson Mandela and those who fought apartheid.

“ … To stand up … risk your life or your reputation everywhere to stand up for what’s right. I think that when I get a little older, I’ll be able to do that…”

It was an eye-opening experience.

“I knew it was important … to understand another place, to have empathy for people who were different than me, to help me understand what I believed and valued as a person.”

That hits close to home in many ways, Carleigh reflects. Like how she makes friends — especially as junior high school students sort themselves into social circles and cliques.

“I try to be inclusive and let everybody into our group. I honestly don’t like being in just one group; I like people, so I’ll go talk to everybody.

“I have a lot of different friends. I think that’s a good thing … because it gives you different perspectives of different people. You learn that there’s all different kinds of people in the world — even just at one school — (and) you can treat them all with respect.”

Carleigh is thoughtful as she ponders how all these insights propel her into the world — and help define her role in it.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on that we don’t see. …

“The teachers always say it’s a good thing to ask questions, and so I try to ask as many questions as I can. The more you know about life or education and (world issues), the more you can make an impact. …

“I try not to think about (the world’s problems) all the time, just to not let them weigh me down, but you’ve always got to keep it in your head that (these things) are happening so you don’t totally let them pass you by.

“You’ve got to know what’s going on (so) you can do something (and) you can know how to fix it.”

That said, remember that she’s just a ninth-grader. She has some time to figure out her place in the world. But she’s not just coasting.

“Everybody deserves a chance in life, so we get education. … We get that chance to do something good with what we’ve got.

“We’ve got free education up until college, so if we can get something out of that, then we’ll be able to impact America — or even the world.

“ … I definitely want to make a difference. I have to be one of those people (who solves problems) — if nobody else is going to do it, somebody’s got to do it. I’m going to be one of those people.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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