Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis with her students
05/28/2014 at 06:40 PM EDT
First grade teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis knew she had to act fast the moment she heard gunfire outside her classroom
at Sandy Hook Elementary School In Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012. In a matter of seconds, she closed the door, turned off the lights and packed 15 first graders into the tiny bathroom in their classroom.
"I knew it was our only chance," she says.
Still, the 30-year-old teacher, who has been hailed as a hero for saving the lives of her students, admits now she doubted she would make it out alive.
"I never thought I was leaving that bathroom," she says. "We lost 26 people and that weighs on me heavily."
Determined to honor the lives that were lost
and not take for granted the fact that she and her classroom of students were spared, Roig-DeBellis saw an opportunity in the generosity of strangers. As hundreds of gifts poured into the school after the shooting, she realized she could teach her students about the importance of kindness.
As she unpacked a box of toys one day, she asked her students why someone would be sending gifts to them.
"One answered, 'They wanted to be nice to us,' and another said, 'They wanted us to be happy,' " she says. "I told them, 'You're all absolutely right. In life, when someone does something nice for you, it's your job to do something nice for someone else.' "
That's how the nonprofit Classes4Classes, Inc.
began, with one class giving a smart board (an interactive white board) to another class they'd never met. On the website Roig-DeBellis launched, teachers can find curriculum to encourage kindness in their classrooms, look for ways to help or post a need for another class. Recipients must agree to pay the good deed forward.
"But they don't need money to do it," says Roig-DeBellis, noting the projects can be crowd funded.
For Jamie Irwin, a third grade teacher at Stoner Creek Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, the experience has helped her students learn to think of others.
"It's one charity that is not only about the money," says Irwin. "It's about teaching our children to look at the others around them, even without knowing them – with kindness, and hope and compassion."
To date, Classes4Classes has helped over 1,000 children in 45 classes in ten states, helping raise money for everything from smart boards and iPads to books and field trips. But even more than that, the charity is inspiring children to care.
"Kaitlin is a hero for many reasons," Charles Calderbank, whose daughter Chelsea, hid with her that fateful day at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "This woman was there at the worst possible moment of my daughter's life and loved her. And that's something you never forget."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine