Mary Latham is like the rest of us. When the next horrific human tragedy hits the news, she's often devastated and grief-stricken, and she wonders how people can do such horrible things to each other. But while most of us simply try to repair our hearts between tragedies, Latham is journeying across the U.S. to find and collect stories of human kindness — and, most important, to learn how human beings carry on after tragedy.
Latham is in Colorado this week — her twentieth state so far on the road trip — seeking stories of people helping others during times of adversity. On the road, she's crashing on couches, relying on the kindness of strangers herself. So far, she's heard so many stories that she's lost track, but her goal is to compile the experiences of those she meets on her blog, More Good Today, and a book that will be donated to hospital waiting rooms around the country.
The motivation for the trip is to listen to people who have given or received some kind of charity in the face of tragedy. "To be able to see how people built something really beautiful out of that pain, you learn that we can put ourselves back together," says Latham. "Making light out of dark is a big concept of that."
Latham has stayed with seventy different hosts across the U.S., most of them strangers, and finds stories either by talking to people on the street or getting tips. The project kind of snowballed, she says. "In the beginning it was more so connections that I stayed with, like a cousin or a friend's aunt; I didn't know them but someone knew them. And it is really wild now some of the connections that I have made."
The stories she has heard range from big to small: a woman barely holding back tears at work after receiving her favorite candy after joking with a customer; a family who lost a child and decides to pay for a dozen kids to go to college; a woman who loses her arm in an accident and has a wave of strangers volunteering to take her shift at her cafe job.
"It just shows that you never know the impact you are having on people and how important those little acts are," Latham says. "You never know what kind of day someone is having or what they're going through, and it's so important."
The road trip was born out of her own adversity. After the horrific Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting in 2012, in which twenty children and six adults were fatally shot, Latham called her mother in tears. Her mother, who had cancer, gave her some sound advice. "She just said, 'You know, Mary, there's always going to be terrible tragedies that happen in life and things that we can't control,'" Latham recalls. "'But there's always more good out there, and you just have to look for it.'"
In the wake of the shooting, Latham heard of a man at her local Starbucks who was buying $100 gift cards and using them to buy strangers coffee. It was a relatively small act, but one that stuck with her, and she created a social-media page devoted to positive news.
Just months later, Latham's mother underwent an emergency operation that went wrong, and she was told that she only had a few days or weeks to live. So Latham's family all flew in and gathered together at the hospital, holding a vigil. While there, Latham read some of the stories that she had received.
Her mother passed away not long after, but through the pain, Latham realized how powerful those stories of kindness were, no matter how simple. She decided on a radical course of action: She would quit her jobs and pack up her mother's old car and road-trip across the U.S. finding sorrowful and uplifting stories. "I felt like I needed to see [the kindness]," she recalls. "That was definitely something behind the trip — that I need to find it for myself. But I think more so that I wanted to show that there is hope."
The trip hasn't been without challenges. In fact, Latham says, it has been incredibly difficult to cope with the depths of grief, despair and fear that she has been exposed to. "It is mentally exhausting to be doing this," she admits. "There were definitely those kinds of stories that were really upsetting."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.