The morning after the deadly mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., JJ Witmer, an 11-year-old boy from nearby Brighton, sat on the couch beside his mother, watching the news.
“As a mom, you want to educate your children, but you also want to keep them safe and free of worry. I didn’t want him to fear going to the grocery store,” Witmer, 51, said. “But it was inevitable that he was going to hear about it since the shooting was very close to home.”
Her son is normally a talkative kid, she said, but after she told him about the attack, “he got really quiet and introspective.”
For JJ, hearing about what happened was, “was really scary and sad,” he said.
While he was most devastated for the victims and their families, he said, he couldn’t help but think of King Soopers employees around the state, who had to go to work the day after three fellow supermarket staff were killed.
JJ turned to his mother and said, “We need to do something.”
He proposed handing out flowers to employees at King Soopers stores in Brighton and Commerce City near his home to show support. His local stores are about 25 miles from the Boulder store where the attack happened, but he said he knew it would be hard for employees everywhere to show up to work the day after the shooting.
“Let’s do it,” Witmer said to her son.
The mother-son duo first headed to a King Soopers store in Brighton. JJ asked to speak to the store manager, who gave him permission to distribute flowers to all employees.
He purchased dozens of carnations in a variety of bright colors and paid for them with money he earned from dog-walking. When JJ told the florist his plan to give a flower to every store employee, she offered him a generous discount.
That’s when he turned to his mother and excitedly said, “kindness is spreading!” Witmer recalled.
They did several laps around the supermarket and handed out one flower to every employee. With each flower, JJ shared an earnest message.
“We just wanted to let you know you’re appreciated. Thank you for being here today. It must be hard,” he said to each employee.
“At first, I was a little bit timid because I wasn’t sure how they would react,” JJ said.
But then he saw that employees instantly responded with overwhelming gratitude.
“They were really thankful. Lots of them were crying and giving me first bumps and air hugs,” JJ said. “It made me feel so good. I was filled with joy and happiness.”
While chatting with the store employees, “they said they were kind of scared to go do their job,” JJ added. “I think we made the right decision because it made a lot of people feel good.”
Although Witmer followed closely behind her son, “I just stood in the background and let him do his thing,” she said. “This was his idea, and I was just there to support him.”
After about 45 minutes in the store, they moved on to another King Soopers location in Reunion, a community in Commerce City, which is where the Witmer family usually gets their groceries.
“We know most of the employees there,” JJ said.
He purchased three dozen red roses that the store’s florist also offered at a heavily discounted price. Again, he circled the supermarket, handing out flowers to every employee in sight.
“He even waited for a staff meeting to end so he wouldn’t miss anybody,” Witmer said.
Marsha Esparza-Barnabe, 58, who works in the pharmacy at the Commerce City King Soopers, was surprised when JJ approached her with a rose.
The atmosphere in the store was “very somber,” she said. “Everybody was talking about [the shooting], and it was just very sad. It could have been our store.”
Then JJ appeared, rose in hand.
The small gesture of kindness was so overwhelming, Esparza-Barnabe said, that “I actually turned and walked to the back and cried.”
Not far away, in the baking aisle of the supermarket, Zerelda Todd — a King Soopers employee of 46 years — was on her knees, stocking the shelves with tubes of frosting.
“All of a sudden, I heard this quiet voice go ‘Ma’am,' ” Todd, 64, said. “I looked up and he was holding this rose and he said, ‘We just want you know how much we appreciate you.’”
Instantly, “I teared up. It was hard to talk,” Todd said. “It was the sweetest thing I had ever seen in my life. You could tell it was from the heart.”
Todd said JJ’s gesture made a tough day more bearable.
“I think it really helped a lot of us,” she said, between tears. “I just wanted to hug him so badly.”
When Todd got home from work that day, she put the single red rose in a vase and placed it on her nightstand.
Witmer, who shared her son’s initiative on Facebook, said she received countless messages from people who said they planned to follow JJ’s lead.
Witmer said she wasn’t surprised when JJ told her he wanted to do something kind in response to the shooting.
“JJ does trash pickups and shovels neighbors’ driveways and helps them get their mail,” Witmer said. “That’s the kind of kid he is.”
Seeing her son in action that day touched her deeply, she said.
“My favorite story was when he was giving one of the cashiers a flower, and a lady who was checking out started to cry,” Witmer said. “The flower wasn’t even for her. She just said, ‘I’m so moved by this.’”
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.