SALT LAKE CITY — Being kind seemed second nature to Oliver Tibbitts.
He was a boy who sought out children on his elementary school playground who didn't have anyone to play with or someone to sit with at lunch.
He was a boy who, despite spending more than a year in Primary Children's Hospital over two extended stays for treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, greeted everyone who entered his room with a kind word or at a minimum, a sincere smile.
He was such a genuinely sweet-natured boy that other parents assumed his kindness did not require much effort on his part.
They were wrong about that, said Bill Tibbitts, Oliver's father.
Oliver explained that "kindness was something he worked very hard at because it is important," Bill Tibbitts said.
Oliver died last December at age 11. His memorial service was attended by fellow cancer patients, classmates and others who attested to his remarkable kindness, said Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit organization that serves and advocates on behalf of low-income Utahns, people with disabilities and people of color.
After Oliver's death, a kindness bench was dedicated at Rosecrest Elementary School in his honor. It's a place children who are feeling lonely or in need of connection can go to meet others.
In big ways and small, Bailey said he witnessed Oliver's compassion as he volunteered at Crossroads' emergency food pantry.
At first he relayed information about orders from an intake desk to a room where the food orders are prepared.
"But eventually, Oliver could pack those bags for himself. He'd pack the bags and bring them out to people who were waiting. He'd volunteer (for) our holiday food giveaways," Bailey said.
Bill Tibbitts said Oliver loved talking to his fellow volunteers and meeting people who came to Crossroads for help. He viewed everyone he met as a new friend.
As his mother, Jana Tibbitts, explains, "This is the place where my son learned to see people through Jesus' eyes."
On Thursday, Crossroads Urban Center honored Oliver Tibbitts with its inaugural Tibbitts Award for Outstanding Young Volunteer.
Scott Patton, chairman of Crossroads' board of directors, described Oliver as "a burst of energy, a bright star. He always had a smile on his face, a kind word for people. He genuinely cared for people in need."
Bailey, in presenting the award to the boy's family, said Oliver "was a person of spirit and warmth and we were blessed to have him here with us." In the coming years, the Tibbitts Award will be presented to other outstanding youth volunteers, Bailey said.
Oliver was at Crossroads before he was born, Bailey said. His mother, while pregnant with Oliver, worked in the office next to Bailey's. When she returned to work after Oliver's birth, he was often in tow. He rode his tricycle in the co-op warehouse.
When Oliver got a little bit older, he came to work with his dad, Bailey said.
When most kids go to work with their parents, "it's all about 'When are we going to get to go home?' I'm sure Oliver did some of that, but he also seemed to be more enthusiastic and happy to be here than any kid I've ever seen," he said.
Bill Tibbitts said he has wondered what Oliver would think about being honored with an award for voluntarism. Since it was essentially an award for being kind and encouraging others to be kind, he probably would have liked that, Tibbitts said.
When Oliver was 5 or 6 years old, he made a sign that for many years hung at Crossroads' reception desk. It had clip art animals and he had typed this simple message: "Be kind."
For the staff at Crossroads, it became an object lesson.
About this time every year, Bailey conducts a staff meeting to remind employees to extend more patience and compassion to clients during the holidays because they are difficult months for many people, let alone people who are poor and hungry, Bill Tibbitts said.
Three years ago, before Oliver was diagnosed with leukemia, Bailey slightly changed the message of his preholiday message to remind the staff what an elementary school-age boy knew and modeled for them.
"Glenn said, 'It's about the sign Oliver made. Be kind,'" Bill Tibbitts recalled.