A refugee family of a Muslim woman and her two children were finally able to walk along Park Street in Montclair, after seven long years of waiting to come to America.
That’s when the woman saw something that made her stop dead in her tracks and demand Revered David Shaw of the Union Congregational Church take her to meet a complete stranger. There it was, a sign perched on a window sill in front of a house on the corner of Park and Cooper.
It simply read, “We heart Muslims” with an American flag hanging on it.
Inside the house with the sign was Nikki Barnes Atkinson, busy hosting a party for her kids. Atkinson noticed the woman approaching her doorstep.
The woman didn’t speak much English but none of that mattered as Atkinson greeted the woman with a big hug and held her while Rev. Shaw explained that the family arrived in the United States six months ago from Afghanistan by way of Iran and Turkey.
Atkinson described the moment as being extremely emotional and beautiful for her and the children inside her home to witness.
But it was no coincidence.
Atkinson has dubbed herself as “the crazy sign lady” in the neighborhood as she has handmade signs sprawled out across her front lawn that display positive messages such as “Hate has no home here,” “Hate cannot not drive out hate, love can do that” and “Black Lives Matter.”
“Our signs are not about being mean to anybody,” she said. “It’s just about being on the side of kindness and love.”
Atkinson was among those who were shocked and devastated by the result of the presidential election on November 9. The next day, she made her first sign.
“I thought, ‘what can I do that will tell people what I want to say… without putting anybody else down,’” she said. “I didn’t put anything that I felt was a negative message, they’ve always just been positive.”
The response has been overwhelming as she has received countless letters and packages from people who appreciate her positive messages.
Now her positivity campaign is continuing to grow as she has started sending out safety pins to people with a personalized letter attached.
“The safety pins are a symbol that you will stand up for somebody in a more vulnerable position, that you be a friend to somebody in need,” Atkinson said.
It’s grown so much that Atkinson has even started receiving requests to send out pins to local kids who are having a tough time in school and could use a positive message.
While Atkinson has become the “crazy sign and pin pals lady,” she certainly practices what she preaches. She is now connected with the refugee family that stopped by from the Union Congregational Church and has plans to help them move into a new apartment in the near future and continue to be a friend for them to rely on.
“I can’t have these signs up and then not follow through if somebody reaches out to me,” she explained.
Atkinson noted that her street gets a lot of traffic from people walking their dogs and groups of kids walking to and from school or waiting for the bus which helps her foster a positive community. Her location is perfect in that her signs don’t go unnoticed. Instead, it’s even become a popular fad for students to take pictures with her signs.
“One thing I can say is that I’m pretty relentless in spreading my message and I always do try to frame it within this idea of kindness and love,” she said.
She’s even started giving out copies of the young adult book “The Hate U Give” to help teach kids about tolerance and the Black Lives Matter movement. Atkinson will be hosting a book club meeting to discuss the story at a date to be determined in August. All those interested in having their kids participate in the book club can email Atkinson at email@example.com.
“People are really down right now, no matter what side of the fence you are on,” she said. “The world is a scarier, darker place now and to be a ray of light in that… I never really set out to do that so it’s shocking to me as well… but every day something new and wonderful happens as a result of that.”