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Sandy Hook attack inspires boy’s bar mitzvah project

TAMPA - Jacob Robinson knew something was wrong that Friday when his mother picked him up at Williams Middle Magnet School. “She was bawling her eyes out,” he recalls. “I thought maybe a family member had died.” It was Dec. 14, the day of the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. A 20-year-old killer stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In just minutes, he killed 20 first-graders and six school staff members before committing suicide. Instead of waiting for Jacob and his twin brother, Zachary, to put their book bags in the trunk, Catherine Robinson jumped out and hugged them tightly. As she drove home, she gently told them about the senseless attack.
Like so many families, the Robinsons listened to the news reports on radio and television. No matter how much they talked about it, it was so difficult to understand such a horrific crime. Then the twins came up with an idea that they hoped would bring some joy into people’s lives and restore hope. Jacob and Zachary turned 13 in January. On March 14, they will celebrate their bar mitzvahs in Israel, and again in April in Tampa. The coming-of-age ceremony is an important milestone in the Jewish faith. In preparation for this important event, they’re asked to perform a mitzvah — a good deed. “You’re taking one step into the world of responsibility,” Zachary says. “It makes you think about being more aware of others rather than just yourself.” After the Sandy Hook shootings, the boys read about an initiative launched by broadcast journalist Ann Curry. Using her extensive Twitter following and Facebook, she suggested Americans perform 26 random acts of kindness to honor each one of the victims. The movement took off, with thousands following her lead, and the Robinson boys were inspired to propose their own plan: Why not 26 acts of kindness for their bar mitzvah project? Catherine, a community organizer, and her husband, Marc, director of operations for a software development company, knew it was an ambitious undertaking. Both of the boys are gifted students with a full load of classes. They play in the school orchestra — Zachary is the first chair viola, and Jacob is second chair bass — and they are active in sports. But the couple were touched by their boys’ enthusiasm. As parents, how could they not support them? “We’re thrilled they’re athletic. We’re thrilled they do well in sports,” Catherine says. “But the most important thing to us is that they’re good kids, good human beings.” So, yes, they told them: We’ll help you with coordinating your acts and driving you to locations. On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Jacob and Zachary sat on a couch in a living-room setting at Weinberg Village assisted-living facility, reading to the residents from “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” This was Act No. 13, in honor of victim Rachel Davino, 29, a behavioral therapist gunned down at the school. Davino, who died protecting several of her students, never knew her boyfriend had asked her parents for her hand in marriage and was preparing to propose. Getting the unexpected visit from the teens was “such a nice surprise,” says Anita Kaler, 85. “They’re just delightful. Very cordial, very fine boys.” Kaler drops her voice to a hushed tone. “Everybody here is not too young, if you know what I mean. Young people sort of shy away from the elders. They see a gray head and they get scared.” Helen Sanders, 96, agrees. She used to do volunteer work in a nursing home in New Jersey, and she knows just how much residents enjoyed interacting with young people. “It just feels good to get a little attention,” she says. “Some people here are just lonely. They brightened our day.” That’s the purpose of the acts, Jacob says. And maybe, he adds, “some of these things will encourage others to pay it forward.” They’re doing about two to three acts a week. Ideas come from searching the Internet and brainstorming sessions with their parents. Among them: making lasagna and delivering it to a Tampa firehouse, playing sports with kids in the after-school program at the Tampa Jewish Community Center, laying flowers on graves at a Tampa cemetery, doing household chores for their grandparents, and bringing snacks and playing cards with children at Metropolitan Ministries. Using Subway reward points, they bought sandwiches and gave them to homeless people. They bought refreshments for a couple behind them at a Tampa Bay Lightning game. They handed out 26 bottles of water to walkers, runners and police officers on Bayshore Boulevard. Their mail carrier got a surprise one day of treats and a gift card. Their mom is tracking their progress on the family’s website (www.familyrob.us), posting the acts, the victims each honors and photos. As the project nears its end, the boys say they don’t want it to mean the end of doing random acts of kindness. They say they got as much joy from it as their recipients. “It really was life-changing,” Zachary says. “You see how happy people are when you do something nice and unexpected, and that makes you happy, too. Making someone’s day just a little bit brighter is such a good feeling. “It just doesn’t take much. But it makes such a difference.”

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