Photo via GoFundMe

In December of 2020, El Paso teacher Zelene Blancas died from complications due to COVID-19. Blancas was known as the teacher behind a 2018 viral video of first grade students lining up to hug each other.

Ms. Blancas described herself on Twitter as a “Proud 1st Grade Bilingual Teacher.” Colleagues described her as the embodiment of kindness.

The video that put her on the map was one she posted to Twitter in 2018. In it, her students line up and either hug, shake hands, high five, or fist bump one special student, depending on the corresponding sticker they choose on the wall. Most students chose to “hug” option. The ritual happened every morning and afternoon, both when students were coming and going. People loved the video because it showed young students engaging in kindness with their fellow students in a creative way.

“She wanted them to know that they were loved when they arrived, there was somebody waiting for them,” said Principal Cristina Sanchez-Chavira of Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary, where Blancas taught. “And then as they left: This is your place, we love you here.”

After Ms. Blancas’ video went viral, Brian Aikens, a teacher from Royersford, Pennsylvania, connected with her via Twitter.

In early 2020, Ms. Blancas and Mr. Aikens virtually connected their students and the two classrooms learned by reading together. When Aikens heard that Ms. Blancas had died, he knew he had to do something to honor her memory. He thought of a heart-shaped rock he had painted with the words “Love more, fear less,” on it. The rock was perfect for the woman who had instilled love and kindness in her first grade students.

“When Zelene passed I just felt like, you know what, this is the time to pass this rock on, this is where it needs to go,” Aikens told AP News. Aikens had the idea to have the Kindness Rock hand-delivered to Blancas’ school in El Paso, Texas, relying on the kindness of others.

Students at El Paso’s Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary watched as the Kindness Rock traveled to Pennsylvania, to North Carolina, to Arizona.

Ms. Blancas’ former colleague, Monica Aguilera, drove to Arizona to pick up the rock and took it back to Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary.

The Kindness Rock is now sitting next to a plaque and a photo of Zelene Blancas — a small memorial set up in the school in honor of the late, beloved teacher.

Blancas’ brother, Mario Blancas, described Zelene as his “backbone” and like a “second mother.”

“Even though sometimes being a teacher is kind of tough … she always looked at the positive way. I didn’t know until now, but she was a walking angel,” he told CNN in the wake of her death.

He also said that Zelene was inspired to help her students learn English because of her struggles to learn English after moving from Juarez, Mexico as a child.

As Sanchez-Chavira summed up to AP News: “The legacy that she’s leaving of being kind to others, making everybody feel special, taking the time to get to know someone and letting them know you’re special, that was her”