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Ben's Bells

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Citywide bells are touching,inspiring

By L. Anne Newell ARIZONA DAILY STAR, Tucson, Arizona

Jeannette Mar??-Packard hoped good things would come from the 400 bells she and friends hung around Tucson Saturday to mark the anniversary of her son's death.

But she didn't expect to see two 50-year-old women sprinting toward bells hanging in Himmel Park trees. Or to find another woman in the park, tears streaming down her face as she held a bell. Or hear how it motivated a long-distance runner. Or even get phone calls from others who were touched.

"It was an incredible day," she said Monday. "It was really, really exhilarating."

Mar??-Packard, 36, her husband, Dean, 32, and their son, Matthew, 6, were joined by 100 others Saturday morning to distribute Ben's Bells, a project they undertook to encourage kindness and understanding.

Of course, it's also meant to honor Ben, who died of croup, a respiratory illness, two months before his third birthday.

"I hoped people would be touched and something this simple could make a difference," Mar??-Packard said. "But I wasn't depending on it. This was amazing."

To Tucson resident Lori Coletta, it was inspiring.

Coletta had been practicing for a marathon she plans to run for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to honor her sister. She'd gone a little more than 16 of her planned 17 miles on Saturday morning - her longest run ever - and was thinking of stopping and walking to her car.

"I thought: 'I don't know why I'm doing this. I'm not a runner,' " she said Monday. "All of a sudden I looked up and there's a Ben's Bell hanging in this mesquite tree. In that moment, I just felt so inspired. I don't know what came over me."

She thought about it, then left the bell for someone else and sprinted back to her car.

"As I ran, with tears in my eyes, just thinking about what I'm doing with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, my body just became light as a feather. I ran like never before," she said. "And as I was running, this Harris' hawk came swooping down in front of me."

The bell was random, but it hit close to home, she said. Her daughter, Kya Rose, 8, is in the same class as Matthew at Khalsa Montessori School and knew Ben, too. Also, she and her daughter had gone to visit the Packard family the week before to help make beads for the bells, she said.

But what really amazed her was that when she went to pick up her daughter, she found Kya had discovered a bell, too, while playing at Hoffman Park, near East Broadway and Swan Road.

Kya said she was in a tree with a friend when she spotted her bell. She knew right away what it was.

"When I saw it, it sort of made me want to cry," she said. "It reminded me of Ben."

But she felt a lot of other things, too, she said.

"It makes me feel bad that Ben died," Kya said. "But this is like a present. It's like a present for Ben. Even people who don't even know him will find this."

It was the same design as the one her mother found on the Rillito River Park Trial.

Officials with Tu Nidito, a crisis support center that has joined forces with the Packards and hopes to open an art therapy center with them, said they spent their Monday hearing about the bells, too. Through midafternoon, more than 25 people had called, said assistant director Debbie Rich.

Some wanted to buy the bells because they knew someone who was grieving and wanted to help them. Others wondered if there were any still hanging.

The Packards also received some calls, including one from Kristy Dorsey, who knew she had to talk to the people who'd given her such an appropriate present. Monday was the fourth anniversary of her mother's passing on. And Saturday, when she found her bell as she dropped off her daughter, Juliet Yardy, 11, for a Davidson Elementary School theater program, was the anniversary of her grandfather's death.

"It was meant to be," Dorsey said. "I had the most magnificent day of my life. I was so enlightened by the power of this bell."

She called and left a message for the Packards to thank them.

"I felt like I had to tell them how it made me feel," she said. "I just let them know there were 400 people in this town feeling like I did. I wanted to tell them what a great gift they'd given to their son."

The family also gave some bells to people it knew needed them, such as Mary Paris, whose 5-year-old son, Jimmie Harkins, died of a strep infection two weeks before Ben died. She and the Packards have helped one another, with Tu Nidito's assistance.

Ben's memory is honored with 400 bells.

Aaron J. Latham / Staff Jeannette Mar??-Packard hangs a handmade bell on a tree at her home. The project succeeded in its goal of inspiring acts of kindness.

Project goes on * The Packard family is readying for the next stage of Ben's Bells: planning another mass distribution, slated for the end of July. l For more information about the project or to help with it, contact Tu Nidito at 322-9155. Send donations to the agency, 3922 N. Mountain Ave., Tucson, AZ 85719. Mark them "Ben's Bells." l Ben's family has given copies of "Tear Soup," a book on how to handle grief, to area counseling agencies. Copies are available at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., or Readers' Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway. l People who found a Ben's Bell and want to share their stories with the Star can contact reporter L. Anne Newell at 629-9412 or at lnewell@azstarnet.com.

Paris helped with the distribution and said Mar??-Packard handed her a bell adorned with a green flower afterward.

"It's hard to put into words what it meant," she said. "I think knowing what they've gone through, having shared the same path and journey, to have something that they've put such positive energy into, to symbolize how precious their son was, is inspiring for me. I think it was a beautiful way for them to remember their son."

Mar??-Packard heard thoughts like that Saturday from the Himmel Park women who embraced her when she told them who she was. One teary woman said: "Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this meant."

The family also heard about people who'd gone looking for Ben's Bells after hearing about them. And Dean Packard, who teaches math at Tucson High Magnet School, said a secretary there found a bell and thanked him for it. And the parents of a student sent him a card filled with grief and empathy.

Other people have been calling to share their stories, and Packard has heard from fellow bell distributors how much the project meant to them. Some drove by where they'd hung their bells hours afterward to see if they were gone, he said. Some left their bells in places that meant a lot to them, or where they'd shared a moment with Ben.

"It was emotional to begin the day with all those people," he said. "And it felt really good to be with them and have their support and see how much love they wanted to put back in the community."