Eighteen months ago, Mary Latham drove away from her home in New York, solo, in her mother’s aging Subaru. Her mission: collecting stories of good and stories of kindness from all 50 states.
More than 24,000 miles later, she arrived in Idaho, her 28th state.
She cruised into Boise for the first time in her life — and her world was not a happy place at that moment. She was shaken by a tragedy in her New York hometown, and Boise itself was still reeling from the horrific stabbing death of 3-year-old Rüya Kadir weeks earlier — an attack that left 8 other victims injured.
But as is emblematic to — and definitive of — her trip, one chance connection led to another, which led to another. She met a woman named Sherri, who took her to see the memorial at Wylie Street Station Apartments. They happened across a party thrown by volunteers and Boise police for kids in the complex, so Latham lingered. Scooped into the energy, she ended up volunteering her morning helping kids make Build-A-Bears. And added another story to her growing compilation.
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Her collection of happy stories is not meant to ignore that there’s a lot of bad things happening. But her mission is to remind people that there’s a lot of good around, too.
“It’s an unfair situation and there’s just nothing OK about what happened (at the Wylie Street apartments),” she says. “But the first thing you see when something happens is how people come together right away and try to just throw their love at you. …
“You have to find ways to keep looking for the positive stuff to help you cope with all the negative.”
That’s what she’s doing. In fact, her whole journey is about relying on the kindness of strangers. In Boise, she stayed with the sister of her mother’s college friend, her 100th host; and with Mary Jane, who simply opened her home to Latham when she heard about the project.
“There was no connection between us at all,” says Latham. “She even sent me off with a special bracelet to watch over me and some gas money.”
Latham will compile her stories in a book that will be distributed in as many hospital waiting rooms as she can figure out how to access. Some of the stories are about incredible acts of selflessness. But many more of them are about little ripples that make big circles.
For instance, a bank teller shared the story about one tough day at work. A customer glanced at her, paused and inquired, “Are you OK? You look like you’re having a rough day.” The employee was embarrassed and joked, “Nothing some M & Ms won’t fix when I get out of work.”
The customer laughed and left. But 30 minutes later, she returned, slid a bag of M & Ms across the desk toward the employee and disappeared again. That was 30 years ago. And the bank teller still remembers the moment.
“People say, oh, I can’t donate a kidney,” says Latham. “But you can make a huge difference with tiny, tiny acts. You can buy some M & Ms. You can buy someone a coffee. You can smile at them.”
It’s no surprise that in Boise she found evidence of lots of kindness. There’s Isabell Yale from the St. Mary’s Food Bank, a 90-something volunteer who remembers a homeless man who came in for a basket of food. He returned a little bit later with an envelope in hand. “I think this is yours,” he said. A large cash donation had inadvertently fallen into his box.
“She was like, it’s just tiny little things like that and you realize how good (people are),” Latham says.
There’s the Downtown waitress whose rent money was stolen out of her car. After hearing her story, a customer walked to the ATM across the street and left substitute rent money in an envelope on the table. Because this has to do with ripples, it was the customer’s friend telling the story.
There’s Monica, whose son was in a bike accident; he’s paralyzed and still in the hospital. Someone told Latham to call her. Latham didn’t want to bother her. But then she remembered the hours upon hours of waiting, when her own mother was in the hospital. “So I thought, well, I’ll text her. Maybe it would be a nice distraction. She texted back right away.”
They talked for hours. The mother had, coincidentally, been in the waiting room the evening of the stabbing, and also witnessed the grief of another family whose 20-year-old daughter had been hit by a car. “She said, ‘I didn’t even know there was this much suffering going on until I was in this room,’” Latham says.
But she was able to see beyond the pain. “It was amazing,” says Latham. “Her kid is still in an intensive situation and she was able to focus on all this kindness that people were doing (for her family) — all the good stuff going on. (She was) staying so positive and relying so heavily on her faith. She was amazing.”
There was also the story of the grieving new widow in Boise whose church cleaned her entire house and did some landscaping. And Emma, who didn’t know Latham — but her friend Marcia in Portland had been following Latham’s journey online — hosted a barbeque so Latham could meet more people and get more stories. Marcia, from Portland, connected her to Jennifer in Eagle, who told a story about being the recipient of a huge care package when her horse was very sick.
And on and on.
“It’s like fueling your own hope tank, really,” says Latham. “Having that on reserve for when you’re going through the (bad) stuff, to be able to combat it. Because it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable that we’re going to have hard times.”
The very same day that a friend told Latham that someone bought $100 worth of coffee for him and everyone in line at Starbucks was also the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where 20 kids and six adults were killed. Latham was terribly upset about Sandy Hook when she talked to her mom.
“(My mother) said, ‘Mary, you’ve got to focus on the coffee story — what a cool thing. There’s always going to be tragedies and terrible things that will inevitably happen in our life. But there will always be more good. You just have to look for it.”
Her mother’s wisdom is the seed for Latham’s journey. She’s traveling the United States looking for “coffee stories,” and has discovered that at the moment you start looking for acts of kindness, you’ll find them everywhere.
The book will be in her mother’s honor; she died in 2013. Many more Boiseans can still participate — and surely we can overwhelm her, hmm? — although Latham is traveling. Email your story to her. Pass along this story. Send her your best connections in the next state she’s traveling to.
“Even if (people) read this article and it just makes them sit with their cup of coffee and think back on their life and the good stuff that happens. … Even if I never hear from them, and I don’t even know they did that — it’s a success,” she says.
“Just to have those moments to remember the good.”
And pass them on. Buy someone a coffee, she suggests. Smile at a stranger.
“I cannot stop the bad,” she says on Facebook. “It will be something I have to combat every single day. But I can do something.
“I can spread more good. So I will.”
How to help
Mary Latham’s More Good project relies on the kindness of friends and strangers, and friends of friends of friends. She stays with host families, one leading to the next, and depends on people to contribute stories — in person or by email — and for donations “to the gas tank” through a GoFundMe page. Here’s where to watch her Tedx talk.
One connection leads to 50 others
Mary Latham’s seventh host, a woman named Marianne, learned about the project and offered her guest room. After Latham left, Marianne sent this story:
For months, Marianne, who lives in Rhode Island, would get emails from a strange address called RingMyBelleTexas, which Mary Anne routinely deleted as spam. Meanwhile, a woman in Texas — named Belle — thought she was sending letters to her friend Mary Anne in Florida. But she was a letter or two off in the email address.
When Belle sent an email on Christmas morning, Marianne finally opened the letter to find that it was a friendly family update to someone who wasn’t her. She wrote back, “I’m not the Marianne you think I am.” Belle replied and said, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed; I didn’t realize. But maybe we could be pen pals?” They have been close friends ever since.
Five months ago, Latham was driving through Texas and thought it would be fun if she could share coffee with Belle, so she texted Mary Anne.
“She called me 20 minutes later and said, ‘I already talked to Belle; she’s got the guest room ready. You’re going to have to stay with her …
“Staying with Belle led me to staying with one of her cousins in New Mexico, which was an amazing experience; and one of her granddaughter’s ex-boyfriend’s mother in Casper, Wyoming, who was a doppelgänger of my own mother. …
“Because of an email that was going to the wrong person, I was connected to, like, probably over 50 people on this mission.”
More than 50 people, most of them strangers. That gives Latham’s family pause, although she’s decided to trust.
“I don’t know. We’re not really strangers once we boil it down,” she says.
At the Wylie Street apartments, the morning that Latham volunteered, she shared her story with a police officer who was also helping with Build-A-Bear.
“He smiled but replied, ‘The police officer in me is terrified for you!’ And then followed with, ‘But that’s really special.’”
Latham says he reached into his pocket and pulled out all the money he had — $12 — and donated to her trip.
She writes on Facebook: “Thank you to everyone out there showing up for each other. You’re the reason my courage exists and I love you for that.”