At first, 11-year-old Ruben Martinez was frightened and overwhelmed watching the horrific mass shooting unfolding on his TV that left 22 people dead and 24 more wounded at his local El Paso Walmart.
But it wasn’t long before the resilient sixth-grader came up with a plan to help him and his community heal. Ruben created the #ElPasoChallenge on Twitter, inviting people to commit to 22 random acts of kindness in honor of each victim who lost their life.
“I usually did some things before like holding doors open, giving food to homeless people,” Ruben tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I just thought kindness always overpowers evil.”
Ruben and his mom, high school administrator Rose Gandarilla, 43, narrowly missed being at the store during the Aug. 3 mass shooting. The two had been at a fundraiser that morning and were stopping by Walmart to buy school supplies when they saw the chaotic scene and returned home.
His initial reaction was to cocoon in his room, telling his mom he never wanted to go to a store again. To calm her son, Gandarilla told him to think of something to do to help. He emerged from his room 30 minutes later with a plan jotted down in his composition book. And he wanted to start immediately.
PEOPLE’s first-ever Kindness Issue is dedicated to highlighting the ways, big and small, that kindness can make a difference and change lives. Click here and pick up the issue, on stands Friday, Nov. 8, for more stories on the impact of kindness from Julia Roberts, Tiffany Haddish and other stars, as well as everyday people practicing kindness in their communities. To share the story of someone who’s done something exceptionally kind, email email@example.com.
They went to Taco Bell to buy dinner for the first responders still at the scene. His next step was to get people at the restaurant to accept the challenge and do their own kind acts.
“I went up to people and said, ‘Excuse me, I am starting the El Paso Challenge to honor the people who were killed. The man who did this was full of hate and that is not what El Paso is about. We are about kindness, so please do these acts of kindness. Do you accept?'” Ruben recalls.
RELATED: 11-Year-Old Starts ‘El Paso Challenge’ to Encourage Acts of Kindness Honoring Victims
The next day, Ruben and his mom went to two hospitals and brought flowers to the victims’ families in the waiting rooms and then to the first responders.
“Since he was little, I would tell him when we would go get something to eat to go pick a table or a person, and we’ve always paid for their dinner,” Gandarilla says. “One time after we ate, he saw someone outside McDonald’s and he said, ‘They are hungry. You have to help them.'”
Ruben’s campaign snowballed, going worldwide while gathering notice from actress and El Paso native Cara Santana, who donated a generous gift card for Ruben to use, and Senators Ted Cruz and Kamala Harris.
Cindy Aguilar, counselor at Lamar Elementary, has known Ruben for five years.
“He’s a very kind person. He shared how distraught we were as a community and wanted to help,” she says, adding that Ruben has inspired students at his former elementary school as young as kindergarten to write down their daily acts, tallied to 22 — and beyond.
Says Ruben, who recently participated in the 9/11 Day Dallas Meal Pack project, providing 110,000 meals: “Everyone should be kind — not just in El Paso, but every part of the world.”
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