I was supposed to be running a marathon right now. The thought briefly danced across my sweaty temple as I dug my hands into the dirt at MacArthur Park in Midtown Manhattan. I’ve always loved birthdays, always seen them as an opportunity to do good. Perhaps that’s how I found myself buying 9 tubs of premade chocolate chip cookie dough from the grocery store and scooping until my fingers bruised.
When I was in elementary school, I was invited to one of my best friend’s birthday parties. In the invitation, along with her home phone number for RSVPs, was a slip of paper with my local Humane Society’s “Wish List.” She was donating her birthday to the dogs. Rather than getting her whatever little girls mothers got each other’s friends for birthday parties, I got her a box of dog biscuits and some cat litter. And I thought it was incredible.
She told me about how when she went to the Humane Society to drop off the supplies, they always let her visit the dogs. A few months later, when I turned eight, I insisted on the same thing. Unbeknownst to me, the birthday give back tradition would follow me into adulthood.
2018 was going to be different though. My birthday fell on a Sunday and I got it in my head to run a marathon. I spent hours comparing all the May 20th marathons until I finally settled on Cleveland. I studied the course map. I looked up flights. And then, I hurt my knee. After weeks of pretending everything was fine, I finally had to admit defeat. There was no way I could will it away and no way I was rebounding in time for the race.
I moped. I gave myself time to be bitter and angry about the whole thing. And then, I set my sites on this year’s birthday give back.
May 20th 2018 was my 24th birthday. Because it was a Sunday, I decided to play into the “24 hours” of the thing. I wanted to see how much joy I could spread in 24 hours. Midnight to midnight.
I had the best intentions of sleeping on Saturday to account for the chaos Sunday would bring. Around 10 pm that night, I looked at my co-adventurer and said, “90 minute nap, see you at 11:45?” And that’s how we prepared for the longest day.
When my alarm went off at 11:45, my first thought was, “you don’t have to do this.” For a moment I realized that nobody was forcing me to try to spend 24 hours spreading kindness. I could go back to bed and wake up at a normal hour and…. I splashed water on my face, gave my partner in crime a hug, and was ready to go.
My partner in crime for the day was the Westminster College SPARK President and my good friend, Mackenzie Basalla. A rising college senior, she is tasked with creating a mini documentary for her major. Her topic? Kindness.
The first thing we did was make a confetti cake. I left that on the kitchen table for my roommates. I like to think I’m a good roommate but am fully aware of my own quirky idiosyncrasies. It was midnight and I was starting at home.
Then, we moved to the cookies. By the end of the day, over 700 cookies were delivered. The chocolate chip deliciousness was packaged five to a bag and on the bag was some fun note encouraging the recipient to “have a good day” or “spread kindness.”
While I scooped cookies, Mackenzie took on the paint chips. In college, I used to visit the local Home Depot and Walmart and talk loudly to my friends about how I was painting my bedroom. I have never painted a bedroom. I would leave with lots of brightly colored paint chips. Then, I would pull out a bag of silver and black and sparkly Sharpies and write inspirational quotes. I called these Paint Chip Post Cards and I would mail them to people or hide them in library books or tape them to the bathroom mirrors.
Looking back at old pictures, I realize that while my intentions were great, my handwriting was not. Mackenzie wrote beautiful and inspiring things on the last of the paint chips. Armed with bags of cookies and cards, we washed the dishes are were on our way out. It was only 4 am.
The idea of the 24 Hours of Kindness was to work across the field. For example, making a cake for my roommates is very nice and also very home based. It’s something that only impacts four of my friends. Seeing the value in that, I also wanted to work with preexisting community organizations. Having a mixture of “my own stuff” and “joining in with others stuff” really gave the day a nice scheduled, but not overly strict feel.
We took the train to the New York City Rescue Mission where we were to work the 5:30 am shift serving breakfast to those who are experiencing homelessness. We walked in unsure of what we would be doing, who we would be meeting, or what we should be expecting.
It was the best thing I could have ever imagined.
We rolled silverware and set the tables. We served coffee and sandwiches. We talked with so many wonderful and inspiring people. As we were helping to clean up at the end of the morning, we started talking to the other volunteers, some of whom are individuals living at the rescue mission. They all shared their stories with a sincere candor. Then my project came up.
We told them how we were going to spend 24 hours spreading kindness and giving back. We had spent the early hours of the morning with them. They were a fun, carefree group – the kind who isn’t afraid to give each other a hard time but also the kind that does it from such a place of love. We told them about the project and they eventually found out it was my birthday and pretty soon I had an entire kitchen of strangers eating chocolate chip cookies and singing Happy Birthday. It was beautiful and pure and in that moment I knew we had something powerful here. I knew we were on the right track.
Throughout the day, my love for humanity and strangers was confirmed 10 fold. We volunteered at a park clean up that tested my Western Pennsylvania roots. We prepared and served dinner at New Alternatives, a program that caters to members of the LGBTQ community who are experiencing homelessness.
We lit a candle in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a friend’s sick family member. We hid our Paint Chip Post Cards around the city at the Farmer’s Market and book store and subway. We delivered cookies to members of my church and everyone we volunteered with. We talked to people about what it means to be kind and the importance of giving back to the community. We donated four large bags of clothing to a local clothing ministry.
At the end of the night, I was caked in sweat and dirt. That’s when I sat down to write the letters. Earlier in the week, I had put a call out requesting people send me the name of a loved one who may enjoy a handwritten letter for no reason. I had a few on my docket and I had gained one more name from someone I had volunteered with at New Alternatives.
Have you ever written a love letter to a stranger?
Normally not one to be at a loss for words, I found myself tapping my pen against the coffee table, the fatigue of the day falling heavy on achy shoulders. In one of my letters, I told the recipient that I didn’t want to pretend to have any answers about life or love or the best career move. But I was certain about one thing:
“If I have learned anything in these 24 years – and especially today – it is that people are overwhelmingly good.”
I have lived in New York City for almost two and a half years now and I have never felt connected to my community and to its people like I did that day. Every single person we met greeted us with open arms. They took an interest in the project and more so, they took an interest in us. We were met with compassion and humanity and kindness. There was so, so much kindness.
I’ve been doing birthday give back events for years and each year I am certain I will be the one improving the world. Every year, I am reminded that the circumstances I find myself in are what better me every single day.
In 1 day in 1 city with less than $100, we accomplished more than I could have ever dreamed. This summer, The Smile Project will be embarking on its first ever Kindness Tour across America. The #SmileProjectRoadTrip will take 54 days and cross over 25 states. Imagine how much joy we can spread with your support.
If you have the means, please consider donating directly to The Smile Project at this link. All donations are tax deductible and you may even qualify for some fun prizes.