Institute News

Students Spread Kindness in Winning IWitness Video Challenge Project

Emma Heintz and Natalia Podstawka drew on the power of small acts of kindness to win the 2015 IWitness Video Challenge.

Their video, “From, Your Friend :)” documents their remarkable effort to make a difference at their school, Douglas Middle School in East Douglas, Mass., by distributing notecards with compliments and words of encouragement to all 415 students. They completed the video in Lisa Farese’s eighth grade English class.

Emma and Natalia were inspired by a short clip of Holocaust survivor Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt, in which she describes how nervous she was to go out in public wearing the yellow Star of David for the first time. But the first man she came across was also wearing a star, and he smiled at her, which made her feel like she wasn’t quite so alone.

The clip showed Emma and Natalia, both eighth graders, that even a small gesture of kindness can really brighten someone’s day – especially for their classmates, who often feel pressure to look “perfect” and tend to think negatively about themselves. So they set out to write personalized, anonymous notes to every student at their school.

“Hi Mya!” one note says. “School is almost over but I just wanted to say you are a great runner and extremely pretty! From, your friend.”

They organized the notes by homeroom and gave them to each teacher to distribute to their class.

In their video, they also interviewed two students who both say that the notes they received really made their day. It felt good to be complimented by their peers and to realize that they are appreciated and special.

The judging panel at USC Shoah Foundation felt that “From, Your Friend :)” wonderfully captured the spirit of the mission of USC Shoah Foundation and the value of the IWitness program. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems, but Emma and Natalia eloquently demonstrated that small acts of decency and kindness can make a big difference in people’s lives. 

The judges were especially impressed with how Emma and Natalia used a seemingly simple statement from the testimony of a Holocaust survivor – how important a smile was to her – and developed it into a creative project that brightened the day of every student at their school. The video was also engaging and well made, their plan to write personal notes to all of their classmates was both ambitious and manageable, and the results were tangible and immediate. 

USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith said Emma and Natalia did more than just make people smile. Along with their whole school, they demonstrated what it means to choose love instead of hate.

Emma and Natalia demonstrated what it means to choose love instead of hate.

"This is no small feat in a world where kids are far more likely to choose hate than love, to stand by than to stand up," Smith said. "They are acknowledging every student's value and contribution to their community.  They are living what it means to be responsible citizens."

The IWitness Video Challenge showcases the myriad ways students across the country are inspired by testimony to do something ordinary or extraordinary in order to make their communities a better place. The students each constructed a short video showing which testimony inspired them and what they did to address a problem in their community that is related to the themes of their chosen testimony clip.

Teachers then submitted the top videos in their class to be considered for judging in the national IWitness Video Challenge competition. From these entries, the judging panel at USC Shoah Foundation chose seven regional winners.

The first-place prize is a trip to Los Angeles to screen their video with a parent and teacher.