To paraphrase his wife Jacque, Darrell Harrington is Ithaca’s Mr. Kindness. He is certainly a man with a big heart—actually, hundreds of them. Harrington is the one who came up with Be Kind Ithaca, whose bright red “Be Kind” hearts adorn lawns and porches throughout Tompkins County and beyond.
Darrell Harrington featured in a Spectrum News 1 segment in 2021
“Spreading kindness and paying it forward,” as Harrington puts it, is Be Kind Ithaca’s mission.
It started with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the related lockdowns in March 2020. Harrington became concerned about the spike in anxiety that he was witnessing in the world around him. Jacque, a nursing student he describes as “just solid,” blew through two red lights in Ithaca one day. “There was this fear, this panic,” Harrington recalled. “The whole world was scared. Our age hasn’t been through something like this.”
Harrington, 48, a lifelong musician who is originally from Groton, has a long history with anxiety disorder. He still lives with some of the trauma he developed from being bullied as a kid with “buck teeth” and “coke-bottle eyeglasses.” After seeing a lot of stressed folks arguing on social media, Harrington did something he never imagined he could do.
He decided to publish a post about his personal experience with anxiety, and invited people to reach out to him if they wanted to talk about their own anxiety with someone. He says he was shocked to discover all the positive responses, including from people he had been afraid would “judge” him.
Harrington wanted to do more. Having recently started a small construction business, he knows his way around a tool shed. Drawing from his mother’s enjoyment of crafting, he used some scrap wood to create a red heart standing six feet high and four feet wide painted with the words “Be Kind.” Just before Easter that year, he trimmed the giant heart with colorful lights and planted it on the edge of his property along a busy road on Ithaca’s South Hill. “I’m just gonna put that there, if it can help someone decompress their stress, their anger, or just make them smile,” Harrington recalled.
Maria Salino, the owner of the nearby Dolce Delight bakery, saw Harrington’s heart and asked he if would make her one, too. Then at her request, Harrington went back to his basement work shop to saw, sand, drill, and paint away and produce 10 more hearts for her friends. He made a few extras and offered them to his own friends on social media, who scooped them up. Harrington reckons that he gave away the first few hundred hearts, but then with lumber prices rising he reluctantly started charging for them basically at cost so he wouldn’t go in the hole financially.
The orders kept coming in. With an extra hand in the work shop from his brother Dale, Harrington began offering two sizes, two by two feet and a miniature, for $27 and $14, respectively. The hearts are in plain site outside countless homes locally, but he has now shipped the Be Kind placards to nearly every state (and documented on Be Kind Ithaca’s Facebook page). Besides the hearts he constructs by hand, Harrington has created a line of Be Kind merch with everything from key chains and employee badge clips to t-shirts and fridge and car bumper magnets.
Nor has Harrington stopped at symbolic expressions of kindness. Inspired by Ronald McDonald House Charities, Be Kind Ithaca has begun donating a portion of its proceeds to the community. It has raised funds for T-Burg Takes on Pediatric Cancer, the Mickey Gallagher Memorial Scholarship Fund, the SPCA of Tompkins County, and The Lost Dogs of the Finger Lakes. Harrington has also sent donations to help victims of severe weather incidents in Texas and Kentucky.
(Full disclosure: Be Kind Ithaca recently made a donation to The Sophie Fund from its sales of Christmas ornaments, hand crafted by Harrington’s retired parents.)
Be Kind’s mission also involves undertaking random acts of kindness. For example, after hearing that many people had succumbed to Covid-19 at an Ithaca area nursing home, Harrington sprung into action by delivering gift bags to all its custodial workers to thank them for their selfless service. Partly supported by a donor, the bags were stuffed with Be Kind key chains, Dolce Delight gift cards, and New York lottery tickets.
Sometimes when Harrington encounters a total stranger who looks overwhelmed, he’ll pull out and present them with a Be Kind sticker. “You just see them smile,” he said.
To some, Harrington may seem like an unlikely ambassador of kindness. They would be wrong. For 30 years—since becoming a teenage fan of Guns N’ Roses—he has played bass guitar in heavy metal and rock bands, like Bone Jar and The New York Rock. With dreadlocks and tattoos up and down his left arm, he toured the country and played venues including CBGB in New York and Whiskey a Go Go in LA. Back home, he augmented his income bartending, and managed The Haunt, Ithaca’s largest band venue.
Through his rough and tumble music career and his mental health struggles, Harrington maintained a belief in the goodness of his fellow men and women. “For every bad person you hear about, there’re nine other amazing and kind people,” he said.
Darrell Harrington himself is one of those amazing and kind people.