Cal junior Egbert Villegas was driving home to Berkeley through the Caldecott Tunnel on Nov. 8 when he noticed an overturned SUV on the side of the road.
He immediately pulled over in the rain and got out of his car.
A few other passersby were trying, unsuccessfully, to flip the car back over with the man inside “as if they were in a movie,” Villegas recalled. But they were unable to communicate with the man, who only spoke Spanish.
Villegas, who grew up in Puebla, Mexico, was able to talk the man out of the car, giving instructions on how to maneuver the seat and evacuate safely. (Villegas has repaired cars since he was 13 and was familiar with the car model, a GMC Envoy, as it is popular among day laborers.)
Once the man was free, Villegas checked him for injuries and later translated questions from paramedics. The man declined an ambulance ride, and Villegas hasn’t heard from him since.
On Thursday, Villegas became the fourth recipient of a new monthly $1,000 cash prize that’s been handed out since late last year to Berkeley’s kindest and most valiant community members.
The Chris Kindness Award is the brainchild of UC Berkeley professor Alan Ross, who teaches at the Haas School of Business and has, for the past four decades, led a political science colloquium that’s brought to campus high-profile speakers like Kamala Harris, Cesar Chavez and Edward Teller.
Ross named the award after his two children’s extremely kind preschool teacher, who died in 2012. He pays the prize money out of his own pocket, but anyone can make a nomination or vote for a winner on the award’s website. To be eligible to receive the award, you just need to have performed a random act of kindness in the city of Berkeley and live, work or go to school here.
The three previous winners have been Michele Williams, a fourth grade teacher at the Berkeley Arts Magnet who went above and beyond in connecting with a student; Bernie Peyton, a Berkeley resident who volunteers at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and teaches kids how to make origami; and Alisa Jackson, a bus driver who provides meals and blankets for unhoused people.
Ross’ goal with the award is simple.
“I just want to shine a light on the positive,” he said. “We call it the ripple effect, where people hear about it and it spreads and that’s what we really want: [for] this to be more than just a monthly award.”
Since it was launched, the award has inspired a spin-off student organization dedicated to spurring similar acts of kindness around town. It’s called the Chris Kindness Club.
Villegas’ girlfriend of over two years, Nelly Elahmadie, was in the car with him during his kindly act, and nominated him for the award, which she’d heard about while taking a course on business ethics taught by Ross in the fall.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him be kind by any means,” Elahmadie said.
According to Elahmadie, he helps everyone around him, ranging from small acts of care — like filling up her empty water bottle without her needing to ask or driving her to a doctor’s appointment in Lafayette (they were coming back from the appointment when they spotted the overturned car) — to more significant ones — such as waking up at 6 a.m. to distribute free meals and legal resources to day laborers, usually at the Berkeley Marina.
“I never expected anything out of this,” Villejas said. “I was always taught to do things out of the kindness of your heart and never expect anything in return for it.”
Concept for award came on a walk in North Berkeley
The idea to start the Chris Kindness Award came to Ross on a 2020 walk near his home in North Berkeley. At the time, he had been looking for ways to honor his late parents.
“I was going crazy teaching online, and I walked by this house and a young girl had put out cookies and I noticed she wasn’t selling them during this dark period,” he said. “This young girl just wanted to do her part and it blew me away. … I wished I could give her an award.”
He decided to name the award after Chris Walton, the preschool teacher of his children who had died of cancer about a decade earlier.
“Every parent and child was struck by his extraordinary kindness and thoughtful manner,” Ross wrote. “I regularly volunteered in his class and observed how he imbued in his young pupils a strong sense of community, charity, and care.”
Williams, the teacher at the Berkeley Arts Magnet, was the first winner of the award.
She was nominated last fall by the parents of a former student, now in seventh grade, who had learning differences and who struggled to make friends. When the pandemic hit and classes were moved online, Williams became concerned about him.
“Knowing his love of WW2 history, she has brought him books her elderly father finds around town. They also share a love of elephants and Peet’s lemon bars,” the parent wrote in her nomination. “He glows when he hears that Ms. Williams wants to meet for their impromptu chats. We are humbled by her thoughts of him and dedication to a kid that needs a little friendship.”
With the money, Williams said she’s set up recurring donations to the World Central Kitchen and bought a print subscription to The New York Times in honor of her late father, who loved reading the paper and died in September.
“My father … could connect with anyone about different things,” Williams said, noting that he was the one who taught her to be kind to people and become friends with people who you might not normally befriend. “It made me feel almost like I was getting this award in his honor, and that was a very healing feeling for me.”
A relief from all the bad news
On Thursday, the mood was festive as roughly 50 people gathered at UC Berkeley’s Chou Hall for an award ceremony celebrating Villegas.
The Cal Band showed up and gave a rousing performance of “Fight for California” outside before entering the lecture hall, putting away their instruments and diving into the dozen boxes of pizza Ross had ordered.
Ross, Villegas and a handful of volunteers each wore black shirts with the Chris Kindness logo on the front. Across their backs, the words “Kindness Pays” were printed in all-caps.
“We’ve been blown away that there was all this good in the Berkeley community, but all we’re hearing, unfortunately, is bad news,” Ross said.
The award has been featured by other news outlets, including the Sacramento Bee to the New York Times, Ross said proudly. Each time, the reporters seem to express relief that they’re covering something positive.
As they posed for a photo together, Villegas asked Elahmadie if she’d like to move to his other side so that she could show off the side of her face she prefers.
“See?” Elahmadie said. “Another kind act.”
Asked what he planned to buy with the gift money, Villegas said most of it would go toward his Berkeley rent.
And he and his girlfriend, both Nintendo fans, excitedly added that they were headed to Los Angeles to check out Universal Studios’ Super Mario theme park over spring break.