Noticing Neighbors Project Happiness LSMO
When was the last time you smiled, today? While you think on that, I’ll just let you know that learning about Jennifer Hunsinger will be your next one. Promise. Jennifer is the creator of Project Happiness LSMO, and she shares all about the organization in Lees Summit that shows kindness in unique ways.
Hayley: So I’ve only barely dipped my toe into learning about Project Happiness. Can you explain what the organization is? Jennifer:
Absolutely! It started unofficially back in 2016. I've lived in my home for almost 20 years, and have had a lot of block parties and gatherings at my house. I put a lot of work and energy into helping our home feel like a neighborhood, so then I had this idea: What if people put positive signs out in their front yard? Just to make people smile, and to create happiness? Hayley: What happened then? Jennifer: I went to one neighbor with my big idea. I knew I would need to get a neighbor on board, especially if I wanted signs in all the yards. When my first neighbor said yes, I was so excited. Not everyone got it right away, but that didn’t stop me. I went to more neighbors, and we got our first group together!
Hayley: What were those first days like? Jennifer:
We didn't know what we were doing at that point. We bought poster boards with wooden stakes, and then I realized it was all going to go the first day it rains! So we got shipping tape, and we invited neighbors over to our home.
We made the signs and covered them with shipping tape. Like, we literally folded a piece of poster board in half, wrote messages on each side, and stripped them like it was shipping tape for all thirty six houses in our block.
Hayley: So those were the first signs? Jennifer: Yes. The day we put them out, people were stopping their cars, slowing down, and looking at the signs like they couldn't believe what was going on. There was this series of messages along the road, all the way around the block. Hayley: What a day! Jennifer: I remember this lady stopped. She was a cancer survivor, and had been battling cancer for the past year. She told me the only time she left her home was to go to treatment.
This was the first time she was leaving her house just to go out into the world. And she was crying. She still makes me cry. (pause) She said, “This is like a sign from God. This is a sign that there's still hope in the world and the world is still a great place to be.”
And we live on a really busy street, but people started slowing down to read the signs. We kept them up for about two weeks.—the news media came, we were featured in a journal somewhere. People were like, “What are you doing? Why did you do this? I just can't believe it. Why?”
That was five years ago.
Hayley: The very first year. Jennifer:
We then decided to do it once a year. So the next spring rolled around and we did it again. And again. We included a few more houses, and now we do it twice a year. We go to over 300 homes.
We stretched out, and the whole mile long street of Bristol Drive gets signs.
Hayley: How was this past year for you? Jennifer:
We hit the pandemic and couldn't go door to door. So in March, people were emailing me. Saying they wanted the signs, they needed some encouragement, some help, and they needed the message that Project Happiness sent but didn't want to get out of their houses and didn't want to touch anybody. They didn't want me to hand them a sign.
And so we put a cooler at the end of our driveway. We made signs every day from March, until the fall. All through the whole summer, we made over 1500 handmade signs—just my family, sitting in our house high on Sharpie fumes! People would come to the house, pick up signs, and put a donation in. So pretty quick, we started getting all this money.
Hayley: That’s so nice they donated. Jennifer: We talked about it. How we've got to put this money back in the community, and so the first thing we did was go to our local elementary school. I worked at the local elementary school and was a lunch lady for many years. I know that a lot of kids have negative lunch debt that they don't understand as elementary kids. They don't understand when they want to buy an ice cream cone, and they can’t do it like all the other kids are. Hayley: That is the worst feeling! Jennifer:
I had to tell them, “Sorry, you have a negative balance,” and they have to take the ice cream cone off their plate. I was that lunch lady for many years and it's heartbreaking.
So we decided we'd pay off all the negative lunch debt at the local elementary school. That way it wouldn't happen in the next year. And so we did it, and it was super exciting. We talked about what to do with the next donation, and then the Coldwater’s No Hungry Kids program refrigerator broke down. Hayley: What do they do? Jennifer:
They provide free lunches for kids all summer long. So we took the money, and went to Lowe's to buy a refrigerator. It was amazing. We had to take out money to buy the signs, stakes, and the markers to cover our supplies, but we decided everything else should go back into the community. We don’t keep a dime!
Hayley: Those are some great causes.
Since then, we've rescued a dog from Missouri Pit Bull Rescue. We covered all its expenses. We also bought $1800 worth of new shoes for foster kids in our community so foster kids could buy their first pair of new shoes. That was really fun. We've been able to turn the project into something that’s uplifting, and then also makes a difference in the community.
We decided to become a charity so people could have their donation be tax deductible. I went through the process of becoming a 501c3, built a board of directors, adopted bylaws—I learned a lot. That has been a lot of work. But the best part of it is that I do this with my girls. I have a 15 year old and a 17 year old, and we make signs in our living room because we know that as soon as they leave the house, they'll make someone's day.
Hayley: That’s some quality time together! Jennifer:
It is, and it’s what we always do. We make the signs. You can get them at my house every Saturday! Don't have to pay a dime, or you can leave a hundred bucks. It doesn't matter. This is a program that includes everybody.
Project Happiness has been like that from the beginning. I mean, kids really love to put the signs up. Sometimes, they help draw the signs. The seniors in the neighborhood have helped draw the signs. It includes everyone, no matter your background, no matter how much money you have. If you have no money, you can come pick out a sign. If you have a lot of money, you can donate. It doesn't matter!
We like that our project is one that includes everyone—no matter race, religion, anything.
What are some of the messages that go on the signs?
All sorts of things. Sometimes we will put song lyrics, sometimes we just write: “Have the best day ever,” or “You're one awesome human.” They range, and it just depends on what we're feeling that day.
I just saw some pictures, are you making notes for kid’s lunches?
Yeah! There’s a summer lunch program at Woods Chapel Church, and they make lunches every day during the summer for kids that suffer from food insecurity. They came to us and wanted to have a nice note so the kids could get some encouragement as they picked up their lunch. We said sure!
So we took it to our Kindness community. We have a pretty active Facebook page through Project Happiness LSMO, and we asked if people could make us 100 postcards every week all through summer—equal to 1300 postcards.
I created a link on my website where people could sign up to make 1 postcard, to make 10, to make 100, just sign up! And within 2 weeks, all 1300 were gone. People couldn’t wait to join in! People said it was so therapeutic to sit down and write a heartfelt note. Especially for a child who might not otherwise get a meal if that church wasn’t doing the project.
That makes it feel different on the kid’s side, I would think— Jennifer: Oh yeah. Hayley: I mean, think about how that exchange now feels different. Jennifer: Yes, because there’s a personal handwritten note in it. Parents are busy and that might not happen for a lot of kids.
We had second grade classrooms complete notes. We had teachers on the last days of school giving the cards out to their students, and they wrote fun sayings on them. So some were by kids for kids, some were made by empty nesters who didn’t have anyone living at home and missed writing notes—I love that the project is so inclusive. Everyone can participate, and there aren’t too many things like that. Hayley: It’s generational. Jennifer: That’s another thing: I love that I can do this with my daughters. I love that time with my girls. This is our fifth year of Project Happiness, and it’s going to be my daughter’s senior year. She'll go to college next year, and it just won't be the same. You know, it's what I love about the program the most. It's something me and my girls can sit down and all do together.
We did have to create a board of directors. But still, me and my family make decisions and then take it to the board. We discuss what direction this project is going to take.
Hayley: What are some of those directions? Jennifer:
Questions like: What do you want to donate to? What's a cause that is near and dear to your heart? My one daughter, Georgia, is an animal lover. So we gave to Missouri Pit Bull Rescue. It's so fun because the girls get to see that they're able to make a difference from as young as 12, 13 years old.
What are some moments with them that come to mind?
One of my daughters, Georgia, is very artsy. She always makes such artistic signs. But she would never go on the news and talk publicly about it. She liked the art behind it. She liked drawing. But when she went to middle school, she walked into her homeroom and they had a news clipping of me playing on the SMART board.
Hayley: What! Jennifer:
She walked in and there's her mom on the TV. They showed the news clip about our neighborhood, and she's a real quiet kid. But she told her class, “That's my mom, that's my family.” And she was so proud. They showed the clip to the entire middle school, and they were working on a Kindness project. That day, her homeroom had to come up with a sign to make.
By then, Georgia had been making all these signs at her home for a couple of years!
She came out to the car rider lane and she told me that for the first time it hit her, and she realized the signs are really making a difference in people’s lives.
Think about all the stories that you don’t know. Jennifer: I know. It's just a sign, and it's just a few words. But people are hungry for encouragement, kindness, and hope.
Right now in our world, they're not getting it. And it doesn't matter where it comes from. It would be nice if it would come from your parent or someone you love. But if it's a simple sign, then that’s it. It's those words that register with you and help keep you going. I feel like it changes things.
Hayley: It does. Jennifer:
I have heard hundreds of accounts of people that have come to my door to tell me what a difference it's made in their life. And I know that it works. I just think it's a really important project.
Hayley: What's a moment that you’ve had with Charlotte? Jennifer:
Charlotte is silly. She's my silly kid. Every time we make neighborhood signs she has to tell people they are the “greatest of all time.”
Except, she will not write you are the greatest of all time, she has to draw the creepiest picture of a goat! We argued and argued. I told her that people don’t know what goat means, and she told me they did—
It means Greatest Of All Time! I’m with Charlotte, I totally know what that means! Jennifer:
Well, now it’s this thing people come to see. People know, now! They want the GOAT sign. People will take pictures of themselves with the sign if they see it and send it to me!
That's hilarious! I love that!
You're getting the chance to see who your daughters are, and their character in this project.
I definitely am. We got to work with Camp Encourage, a camp for kids living with autism, a skillset that is right in Charlotte’s wheelhouse. She really enjoys being around people that have special needs and has such a heart for it. We wouldn't have a reason to do that, and I maybe wouldn’t get the chance to see it if we weren't doing this project.
If you could sum it up, what's your hope for the community? What do you hope this provides?
Quite frankly, after 2020, I feel like the mental health of people in our community is really suffering. I hope that these signs can go out and really help people understand that they are important, and that they matter. I hope the messages resonate with them somehow and encourage them to keep going. And then with our visits to schools and Kindness projects, I hope that we can get out there and let people know that there are people in this community that care about them and love them and are willing to help them if they need help. There's going to be a lot more to coming out of this pandemic other than just getting the vaccine. I think people are struggling to reconnect. And that hurts my heart.
That's a big mission. But this is a very everyday way to meet it. Jennifer: I hope it just makes people smile!