February 18, 2020

She drove 43,000 miles and through all 50 states to uncover stories of kindness

On a mission to honor her mother's message of hope, Mary Latham set out to find the good stories in every state that we often don't get to hear.

Mary Latham poses by her car, "Old Blue" by Truman's beach in Orient, NY one of her favorite places on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, following her journey across the country.

Editor’s note: Kindness is all around us. Even in today’s polarized political climate and sometimes toxic social media landscape, it’s not hard to spot genuine acts of kindness and generosity. That’s why we launched the Kindness Chronicles, a regular series on The Renewal Project that exposes the goodness that we know exists in every neighborhood. Submit your story to us at info@therenewalproject.com or tweet to us @therenewalproj, using the hashtag #kindnesschronicles.

On Oct. 29, 2016, Mary Latham got in her mother’s car and began driving across the United States. She had a plan to collect stories of human kindness from across the country. She had put out a video call on social media, and had a plan to use her network to find people to stay with while she discovered and chronicled these stories. After nearly four years, Mary has traveled more than 43,000 miles to visit all 50 states and stayed in 154 strangers’ homes along the way—and she’s nearly finished with her mission.

Latham was inspired to take this journey as a tribute to her mother, who passed away in 2013. Her mom believed that there was more good in the world than bad. So to honor her memory, Latham decided she would collect these stories of “more good” and put them into a book that could be placed in hospital waiting rooms, to both comfort and inspire those in difficult situations.

Now that Latham has finished her travels—she officially wrapped in New York last November—she’s spending time in St. John in the Virgin Islands, working on getting her book proposal together. “It’s a whole ‘nother learning process,” Latham said. You can follow Latham and the More Good project on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your process of finding these stories of kindness and finding places to stay?

When I first came up with the idea, my friend helped me put together this five minute video that I posted on Facebook saying “I had this conversation with my mom—this is what she said. Now she’s gone and I wanna make something for these hospital waiting rooms because there’s nothing in them and they’re so depressing. Everyone in there is usually losing someone and if we could give them some inspiration or hopeful stories, that would be nice.”

While that started a chain of people tagging people and people connecting me on social media, it looked like there were more people actively sharing and reaching out than there actually were. Out of 50 comments, maybe only one would reach out. I really had to get boots on the ground to meet people and search for the stories. I would reach out to local newspapers and radio stations, but it was hit or miss if they would pick it up. It was a learning process of how to get the word out there. The biggest thing was connecting to someone in the community that really knew their town. Small towns were always way easier to find stories. I’d go to the coffee shop where everyone in town and the owner would say, “Oh you know Mr. Johnson donated his kidney to his coworker’s niece he didn’t know!” I was just trusting strangers and hoping it works out.

You did this for nearly four years. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your journey in that time?

Right at the beginning, the biggest lesson was perspective. I was really close with my mom and I was broken up about what happened and I was trying so hard to keep her message and optimism alive. So I was still smiling, but I was still so sad. I think seeing people across the country who don’t have good relationships with their families and their moms made me so grateful for my own. I also went through a lot of health issues on my trip, including some bad leg pain, but then I’d meet someone with no legs. The universe would always give me perspective and I’d use that as fuel. Their stories deserve to be told and I’d keep going.

I really learned what kindness is. When you hear so many different types of acts of kindness and what people actually bring up when they think of kindness, for me it was time. Kindness is time and taking the time for the people around you and taking the time to actually send the letter of thanks or go and check on a friend. It all really boils down to taking the time to actually do something good.

I stayed with strangers because I thought that would help me get connected with the communities I was going through and 70 percent of the time it really didn’t. I would go out and dig up my stories and meet people, and come back and tell my hosts about what I’d learned and they’d have no idea. We’re all in a bubble, we go to work and come home and we just see what’s on the news, so I think that’s why we think everything is so bad. The sense of community awareness has just dropped.

Mary Latham stops and takes in the view of Badlands region of America during her cross-country tour.

When it comes to all the different stories and acts of kindness you collected, what patterns did you notice?

People usually remember the acts of kindness when they’re going through something hard. A woman had her wallet stolen, but then she got a $100 tip—and the person who tipped didn’t even know about the wallet. Another person was going through a divorce, but then someone offered them a room free of rent for three months. People always go to their darkest moments, because that’s when they see the good the most. It’s like we’re desperately grasping on to anything good at that point, because we’re so low. The kindness is always there, we just don’t see it as much.

What advice would you give to someone looking to engage in more acts of kindness and doesn’t know where to start?

I think it’s best to start at home and in your community. The best thing you can do, and it doesn’t cost anything, is give people your time. If you can go volunteer somewhere or walk around your neighborhood and notice what’s going on. Maybe there’s an old woman who’s walking to the grocery store because she can’t drive anymore and it’s 40 degrees out, maybe ask her if she needs anything. Just be more aware of your surroundings.

I think saying thank you is also a good start. Anyone who has inspired you in your life or has made an impact, take a minute or two to write them a thank you note. It feels so good and it’s so nice for the person that gets it.

Was there a region or state that was No. 1 in kindness? Or was it even across the board with kindness everywhere?

It’s so hard to choose a favorite state or story, and it’s hard to base something off a few people in an entire state. But from my personal experience, I had a really good feeling in Alaska. I think they are super aware of what’s going on. They all listen to their radios, read their newspapers, and know what’s happening in their communities. Everyone was connected and were open and welcoming to the project.

Once the book is done, what role do you see kindness playing in your future? Do you have any plans?

I have an idea that would combine my day job as a wedding photographer with the More Good initiative and do something called “More Love” where I would document love stories from across the world. There was a woman I met in Rhode Island who was diagnosed with brain cancer, and her husband wasn’t really supporting her. She had wanted to run a 5K in every state, so her three best friends all stepped up to the plate and started running 5Ks, and I met them at a race. To me, that’s a love story.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.
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