Inside were 15 handmade sympathy cards from a group of first-graders O'Malley had never met.
"We're so sorry about your loss," read one card in a crooked scrawl, covered with pink and purple hearts.
"We care about you," read another, embellished with rainbows and a smiling sun.
O'Malley wept as she sifted through the stack of cards, savoring each message.
"It touched my heart that these young kids took the time to think about me and my son," she says. "I still have the cards on display in my sun room. I'll treasure them forever."
O'Malley is among 50,000 people who have lost loved ones, are ill or just need to know someone cares who have received surprise packages from the Kindness Club at Evansville Elementary, a student charity started in 1995 by teacher Barb Bratvold.
Courtesy of Barb Bratvold
The kids enjoyed the project so much, she says, that they asked if they could continue making cards for others in the community who needed cheering up.
Whenever anybody in Evansville, Minn., learns about a friend or relative going through a tough time, they know to tell the Kindness Club, says Hallie Richter, 6.
"I like to write 'I love you' on all of my cards and decorate them with lots of stickers," says the first-grader. "I hope they help people to get better faster."
Meeting twice a week, "the Kindness Club is a way to teach my kids that the world isn’t all about them, there are people out there who are hurting," adds Bratvold, 57.
"Even though they’re only in first grade, this is a way they can make a difference," she says.
She recalls the story of one boy who initially didn’t want to make cards for people he didn’t know until he came to school one day in tears.
His favorite babysitter had been killed in a car accident.
"He spent a lot of time making a beautiful sympathy card," recalls Bratvold, "then he delivered all of the students' cards to the family."
After he saw how much it meant to her family, he always wanted to participate.
"Those are the kind of lessons I hope stay with my students," she says.
"I always tell my kids, 'Once you're a member of the Kindness Club, you're a lifetime member,' " she says. "I'm hoping that they'll still be making cards when they’re 99."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine