CAMDEN — Three years ago on one of the worst days of her life, Mary Latham, 29, was sitting in the hospital with her relatives, waiting to hear news of her beloved mother, Pat, who was dying of breast cancer.
While sitting in the sterile lobby trying to occupy her thoughts, she checked a Facebook page she and a friend had started two weeks earlier to collect anecdotes of random acts of kindness. After the Newtown shootings in Connecticut had left Latham feeling depressed, she wanted to do something positive. They called the Facebook page GrAttitude Project, and asked people what they were grateful for and discovered that the page had been flooded with emails of kind stories.
As the family sat in the waiting room, taking turns sitting beside Pat during her final moments, Latham began reading aloud stories from the GrAttitude Project’s Facebook page. At an especially dark time, the tales lifted the family’s spirits.
“There are always terrible things that will happen, but you've got to focus on the good out there,” her mother had once said to her. “There are always more good people.”
Her mother died three days later and as Latham worked through her grief the next few months, she kept thinking back to the day in that waiting room and how those little positive stories gave she and her family comfort. The idea came to her that the GrAttitude Project needed to morph into something bigger. Rather than wait for more people’s stories to hit her inbox, she decided to go out and interview people in every U.S. state and compile their stories in a book with the end goal of donating the books to hospital waiting rooms. This quest would become renamed into More Good.
First, Latham had to figure out where to stay and reached out through her GrAttitude Project Facebook page to anyone who’d let her couch surf while she was in their town. She got back dozens of offers and with a GoFundMe page to cover gas and incidentals, six months later she was ready to start her journey. On Oct. 29, 2016, Latham began driving her mother’s 2008 Subaru up to the northeast, staying with strangers in multiple towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island before entering Maine in mid-November.
Thomaston resident Libby Schrum offered Latham a guest room, and introduced her to a local woman, Barbara Sullivan, who had a random act of kindness story of her own to share.
As Latham recounts: “Barbara’s 21-year-old son, Patrick, had a stem cell transplant while he was in college and it was a terrible two years for her. When Patrick was just about to go into surgery, Barbara went down to the chapel of the hospital and found a lady playing harp and gravitated toward her. Barbara told the harpist it gave her comfort to listen to her play and the harpist asked her what her situation was and what her son’s name was. Barbara then left to attend Patrick’s surgery and minutes later, outside the hallway, everyone could hear this beautiful sounds of the harp once again. The harpist had found out where Patrick’s room was in this huge hospital and played for two straight hours while he underwent surgery.”
The stories she’s collected from people in Maine and other New England states so far have been largely around finding strength and resiliency after heartbreak or tragedy.
“I cry at least once a day,” she said.
Far from being an escapist road trip, Latham has been working every day as a photojournalist, while still managing clients as a freelance wedding photographer, editing her work on the road. She hadn’t realized how emotionally overwhelming it would be to process so many people’s stories day after day while traveling. She anticipates she’ll be traveling up to a year around the contiguous United States and will make special trips to Alaska and Hawaii to finish the journey.
“So far, everyone has been so supportive,” she said. “I’ve met incredible people who started off as strangers. And everyone is on board with this because it’s positive.”
Her trip has caught the attention of multiple media outlets, including Fox News in Connecticut and the Portland Press Herald. Once she left Maine, her next stops were to include Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts before heading south.
“I thought I’d better hit the New England states before the snow flies,” she said.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org