1. Abby’s Lemonade
2. Daily Ocean
4. Operation Beautiful
5. Wonder Capes
7. Phoebe’s Food Bank
8. Donald Arthur
9. Secret Agent L
10. An Angel in Queens
Changing the world starts with one simple act.
In difficult times, stories of heroic endeavor always hearten us. But sometimes what motivates us are the everyday acts, things so simple that we can easily contribute. Everyone, after all, has the power to give kindness.
The people we've called out as our Most Inspiring Acts were among the many this year who saw an injustice or a void or someone down-and-out who needed a little help. They include a preschooler struggling to understand homelessness, a mother instilling bravery in sick children, a blogger cheering up strangers, and a heart-transplant recipient spreading the message of the greatest gift of all. They're very different people, from all across America, who decided to step forward and do one simple good deed. And their actions have inspired friends, neighbors, strangers, communities to carry forward their cause, or take up their own mission.
If their stories inspire you, visit Ripples of Kindness (kindness.yahoo.com). As more people take action and encourage others, your ripple of kindness might become a wave of change. That's how good grows.
A former broadcast reporter, Lam founded Go Inspire Go (GIG), an inspirational, video-based website that uses social networking to inspire social change, encouraging viewers to use their powers to help others. He currently blogs online for Huffington Post, Deepak Chopra's Intent, and Tonic.
The catalyst: Eight-year-old Abby Enck frequently accompanied her 6-year-old brother, Cameron, born with cerebral palsy, to Lutheran General Children's Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. "It's hard having a sibling with a disability," admits Abby's mother, Becki Enck. "She loves her brother and is such a caring and thoughtful little girl."
Abby noticed that the other pediatric patients liked to color, but many of the crayons were broken. She wanted to buy a few new 24-count boxes of crayons. Her parents agreed to match any number she could buy herself.
The act: Abby, with help from a friend, decided to raise the money through a lemonade sale, a classic childhood scheme, but they wanted a fresh twist. They searched online for ideas, and Abby loved the idea of creating bottled-water lemonade kits with a packet and homemade tag. "At first I thought I would have to walk her through everything. She surprised me," her mother recalled about the venture. A little entrepreneur, Abby created a plan, a list of potential customers, wrote emails, and created the slogan: "When life gives you lemons, color!"
In that first summer selling to her Chicago neighbors, she raised enough money to buy 18 boxes of crayons and donated 36 to the hospital. This summer Abby reached a goal of 1,000 crayon boxes.
The ripple: Abby assembled 52 water-bottle lemonade kits and recruited family and friends to sell them for $1 each. The local press publicized Abby's ambitious fundraising efforts, and the community's response was sweet.
Nancy Lingway, owner of A Car-Tune in Crystal Lake, sold 24 kits on Abby's behalf, and with a bit of encouragement, her customers gave a little extra and raised $145. Impressed by Abby's goodwill, the Miri Likes Art Foundation wrote Abby a check for $150. Abby exceeded her goal, raising a total of $551. She and her parents purchased 1,009 boxes of crayons. With the extra funds, she bought 140 boxes of markers and 125 boxes of colored pencils.
The colorful lessons continue to spread to millions of others. Educational magazine Weekly Reader wrote about Abby's project, sharing her message and method with more than 250,000 teachers and 8 million students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. Other children in the community, including Abby's Brownie troop, are brainstorming ways to give next summer.
Abby now has a bigger zest to be philanthropic. Next summer, instead of drinks, she wants to diversify into microwave popcorn packages to raise enough money for DVDs. Abby noticed that her brother and other pediatric patients spent a lot of time in their hospital rooms. She wasn't satisfied with the older DVDs available to them and thought that a few newer titles would keep the kids occupied and lift their spirits.
Besides building business skills, Abby has been learning an important life lesson. "Everyone can make a difference," she says. Her mom has learned from Abby too, saying, "Children don't see the obstacles. Adults create obstacles that stop them from achieving their goals." Or, as Abby puts it, "Everyone can make a difference."
The catalyst: For as long as Sara Bayles could remember, she's loved the ocean. She saw it as a magical place that holds endless hours of exploration and wonderment. Bayles has always felt a natural inclination to protect the environment and look after wild animals, but she didn't know how she could make a difference -- until she started her Daily Ocean project and blog.
The aspiring writer and art instructor lives in Santa Monica, California. When she took a trip to the big island of Hawaii, Bayles leapt at the chance to swim with the sea turtles and spinner dolphins in the warm Pacific waters. After her trip, though, she was taken aback at the contrast between the stunning Hawaiian sunsets and the Santa Monica beach, where birds pecked at plastic bags and rubbish was strewn along the sand.
After doing more research, she was shocked to discover the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area in the Pacific Ocean where the currents swirl together, collecting about 10 million tons of trash. "It is estimated to be the size of twice the continental United States. But there is more than one of these oceanic gyres; there are five," Bayles explains in awe.
Of her home beaches, she says, "I saw so much trash on the beach and thought, What could I do?"
The act: In between book writing and teaching art for a local nonprofit, 34-year-old Bayles couldn't make it to organized beach cleanups. Then she realized she didn't have to wait for an organization to set up a beach cleanup day. She set a goal: pick up trash for 20 minutes a day for 365 (nonconsecutive) days.
Four days a week, Bayles scours the stretch of sand half a mile south of the Santa Monica Pier -- collecting, weighing, and blogging findings on her website, the Daily Ocean. Every blog includes a tally: garbage weight and a countdown to day 365. On top of the "OMG, no they didn't list": syringes, condoms, baby doll heads, voodoo dolls, and soiled diapers.
What upsets her most are the convenience-store items: Cigarette butts, plastic bags, candy wrappers, and fast-food packaging make up 90% of her collection. "That's disturbing," says Bayles. On average, she picks up four pounds of trash per trek, or enough rubbish to fill a reusable grocery bag. The heaviest on a single run: 14 pounds.
The ripple: More than 165 days along, Bayles has collected more than 665 pounds of junk. That's heftier "than the world's heaviest sumo wrestler," she writes. She has been educating, empowering, and inspiring the global community to pick up more than half a ton of trash so far -- motivating hundreds of beach-goers to become beach-doers.
Across the country, Danielle Richardet started collecting cigarette butts in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, for 20 minutes at a time and posting the results on her own blog. She writes: "We all impact each other. Sometimes we don't even know we've made a difference in someone's life. The ripple effects that we help create can be so powerful."
The farthest and most dramatic ripple, Anke from Germany, retrieves rubbish from the Baltic Sea and creates beautiful artwork with it.
Bayles's determination has led her to become an environmental activist and mentor. "I didn't expect to learn so much about plastic bag bans and water bottles," Bayles says. On the not-so-sandy front steps of the state capitol last summer, she lobbied for AB1998, the plastic bag ban.
What's next? Bayles is shopping for a literary agent for her fantasy novel, "Calliope and the Heart of the Sea," about a girl's crusade to save the ocean. She hopes her Santa Monica cleanup crusade will lead her to an environmental research expedition, just south of the Pacific Ocean. She's fundraising (with a goal of $25,000) for a trip with her husband, a marine biologist, to the open waters to collect water samples, to study plankton and the effects of micro-pollutants in the ocean, and of course to blog about her findings.
The catalyst: Ben Sater was 3 years old when he received his first surgery on his pinky and thumb for trigger finger, a condition that causes fingers to lock in a bent position. When he was 10, he had surgery on three other fingers at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, an orthopedic facility that treats about 40,000 patients yearly, at no charge.
"He thought we forgot to pay the hospital bill after his treatments," chuckles his mother, Kim Sater. She explains that the hospital relies on the generosity of donations from individuals, organizations, foundations, and corporations. "I was more confused than amazed," Ben recalls. "I didn't understand how this huge hospital could run on donations and charity events, so I wanted to give back." He later pledged to himself that he would donate a million dollars to the Dallas hospital before going to college.
Despite his big thinking, his initial attempts to raise money were modest: car washes and lemonade stands. Sater's parents inspired him to think a little bigger.
The act: Golf enthusiasts, Ben and his father came up with the idea of holding a children's charity golf tournament at the sprawling courses of Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas, Texas. They formed two committees, adults and children. Kids aged 7 to 18 were asked to raise $100 to participate. Excitement increased exponentially, and so did the number of donations.
The tournament became so popular that organizers added another at the Stonebridge Ranch Country Club in McKinney, Texas.
By the summer of 2009 -- his senior year in high school -- Sater was more than halfway to his goal. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would raise 1 million," says 18-year-old Sater, now a freshman at Austin College.
The ripple: Local golf professional Cameron Doan was inspired by Sater's efforts and organized KidSwing to continue the charity fundraiser. The first tournament in Dallas raised more than $20,000, double the initial goal. "The first was so much fun and such a success, we wanted to do it again," said Kim Sater. The next year, donations totaled $40,000. In the fourth year, the number of kids who took a swing on the green tripled. The running total: just over $500,000.
Sater started to believe that his million-dollar goal was possible. The camaraderie solidified, kids invited more kids, the community pulled together, and "everyone really wanted to see us hit our goal," says Sater. One girl, a former patient at the hospital, raised more than $50,000.
In July 2010, KidSwing surpassed the goal, with $1,026,000, plus change. From his dorm room, Sater's still in awe of the journey. "I can't really explain how I got to this day -- it was a series of events. I was just a 10-year-old kid with an average GPA. I just wanted to do something simple to give back."
The catalyst: Caitlin Boyle was writing environmental compliance documents for a land developer. But writing legal docs and analyzing the development's environmental impact from the confines of her home office was too technical for her taste -- and too solitary. "I typically had little interaction with team members or other staff on a daily basis. I preferred to work directly with people, but I was missing that aspect at my job," Boyle says. The 25-year-old yearned to do something more creative and self-directed, and wanted to connect with people on a more personal level.
Boyle was taking night classes, hoping for a career change, and on one "really bad day" felt completely overwhelmed by work and school. Boyle realized that her own self-image was holding her back: "I thought I wasn't smart enough to go to work and take night classes at the same time. I'm going to fail my chemistry final. I'm bad at math and can't do this. I was suffering from negative self-talk," she admits.
The act: So what's a woman to do? Brighten up someone else's day. She scribbled "You Are Beautiful" on a piece of paper, posted the note in the ladies' room at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida, took a photo, and blogged about the moment. She wrote, "If this little blog only does one productive thing, I hope it helps readers realize how truly toxic negative self-talk is -- it hurts you emotionally, spiritually, and physically."
In three days, 75 notes with photos of people posting their own messages flooded her inbox. On the fourth day, Boyle launched her site, Operation Beautiful. The mission: "To post anonymous notes in public places for other women to find. The point is that we are all beautiful. You are enough ... just the way you are."
The ripple: The viral message has inspired tens of thousands of anonymous, positive notes, posted in public spots: bathroom mirrors, libraries, hospitals, and gyms. Boyle blogs six days a week, sharing stories with heartfelt messages of hope. Her favorite is from a gym: "Scales measure weight, not worth." Others include "This is not a trick mirror, you look this awesome" and "Take a diet from your negative thoughts, fill yourself w/positive ones."
Boyle's mission has touched girls on every continent except Antarctica, sparking impassioned online discussions on the notions of beauty. A soldier in Iraq posted an encouraging note in the barracks, a place where beauty isn't usually a topic of discussion. The custodial staff left the message untouched during the course of her rotation.
One 17-year-old Canadian girl, diagnosed with bulimia at age 14, credited a note for stopping her downward spiral. She wrote: "I began my first diet when I was eight. I have spent my entire life working to be 'perfect' and thin. It has ruined my life." She lost her hair, nearly all her tooth enamel, and her ability to stand up straight. She spent two summers in the hospital. One day, after therapists forced her to eat a meal, she retreated to the bathroom to throw up. Then she saw a note: "You're beautiful, you're good enough."
"No one has ever said that to me," wrote the girl. "I didn't throw up that day. It was the first time I ate something solid and did not throw it up in years." Caitlin has been in touch with the girl and says it was a "true turning point in her treatment; she's out of treatment and eating again."
Her project also thwarted a suicide attempt. A girl headed to the roof of a parking garage spotted a note: "If there's no you, someone else will be as alone as you feel now. Turn around. Operationbeautiful.com" She turned around and called a friend to pick her up. The friend wrote this email to Boyle: "Thank you so much for starting this project. She will never admit it, but she owes her life to this project."
The self-esteem booster has even inspired clubs. Six Texas teens from Colleyville Heritage High School began to go makeup-free every Tuesday. They founded a student club, Redefining Beautiful, now 180 members strong, to resist stereotypes based on appearance. Boys at the school think the idea is beautiful, too: They created their own club to support the girls' message.
Boyle's positive message continues to multiply: "The Today Show," "The Early Show," the Oprah Winfrey Network, and many other mediums are spreading the compassion. As for her career, Boyle is literally writing the next chapter of her professional life. She continues to blog for a living and has been commissioned to write a book, appropriately titled "Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-It Note at a Time."
"It created this great circle of random acts of kindness. It proves you're never alone, you can change a life, and you can do something nice for strangers," says Boyle. "When I post a note, I'm saying, "I choose to be positive!"
The catalyst: Are superheroes for real? Amy Pankratz just might qualify.
Like many superheroes, the stay-at-home mother from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, discovered her powers by accident. One cold winter day, her then four-year-old daughter Isabella said, "Mommy, I want a superhero cape." Pankratz says, "I told her OK." But then she couldn't find capes for little girls at the store, so she sewed her own.
Months later, when Isabella fell ill with a double virus and had to be hospitalized, the power of the cape multiplied and transformed into Wonder Capes.
The act: During a brief hospital stay, her daughter begged Pankratz to pack her pink princess cape. "On the third day, Isabella asked if she could flit into the hallway with her cape. And to us, that means skip." Pankratz says. Kids with IV poles watched in awe. "That's when Isabella put the cape on another hospitalized child." Every other pediatric patient on that hospital floor wanted to soar through the halls. Pankratz started creating, sewing, and donating customized superhero capes: more than 4,000 and counting.
The mother of three powers through her days juggling schedules, taking her "love bugs" to preschool and kindergarten, and checking off routine to-dos from her lengthy list. By night she sews capes. After the kids are tucked in, you can hear her secret weapon –- her Brother sewing machine -- whirring away.
Bolts of cheery, bright fabric (animal, floral, and polka-dot patterns) line one wall of her sewing room. It takes Pankratz three or four hours to customize a cape, and she considers each child and gives their capes a special blessing. "I read their stories, think about them, their hobbies, favorite colors; I pray over them," she says. "If, even for a moment, the cape brings some relief, comfort, and hope to them, it's worth it," she says.
It has for many. One parent who lost her 4-year-old daughter to cancer took the time to send a heartfelt email to Pankratz: "Her cape was the one constant in her life. It was her security, and honestly, our security too. We are so grateful for someone like you; we felt your prayers in her cape."
Five-year-old Brooke Mulford is fighting stage-four, high-risk neuroblastoma, childhood cancer of the nervous system. Countless procedures -- chemotherapy, harvesting stem cells, radiation, clinical trials -- have become routine. In a pink cape and special floral-designed hearing aids, Brooke says, "It makes me brave." Her mother, Amy Mulford, says she's witnessed the power of the cape. "It gives her strength. Always at the hospital, she would pull her blanket up, and she would have the cape running on top of it, so she was pretending being protected by her cape."
The ripple: Supermom Pankratz has sparked others' hidden powers to think about what they could do to give.
The Wonder Capes project inspired Angie Kappenman, a mother from Madison, South Dakota. "The cape made [my son] Nicholas feel strong. He would fly through the hospital halls to receive his treatments. He would be tired from the treatments, but when he puts it on, he gets his energy and truly believes he is a superhero," says Kappenman. The cape inspired the Kappenhams' backpack donation program, Stay Strong, Carry On, at the local hospital. The backpacks include coloring books, toys, and activities and can be used as organizational tool for the formidable amount of hospital paperwork.
A mother-daughter duo, Art-Moms, is teaming up with Pankratz to make superhero keychains for their Together We Can All Make a Difference campaign. One hundred percent of proceeds will go to childhood cancer research.
Church and community members were also inspired to ride the ripple. Extra fabric scraps are donated to a local church group and are used to make quilts for the homeless.
In Norway, Olea's Cupcakes joined forces with Pankratz to whip up a Cupcakes for a Cure benefit. Proceeds will go to a local hospital. Other partnerships are in the works: The Make-A-Wish Foundation, Children's Miracle Network, and St. Baldrick's Hospital are teaming up with the supermom to give her special capes to sick, injured, or disabled children and their siblings around the world.
The catalyst: Bullying captured headlines in 2010, but a sad spate of suicides, including that of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, shifted public attention to harassment of gay kids.
Still, 29-year-old Brian Elliot, who recently graduated from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School with an MBA and an MPA, didn't think change was happening quickly enough. So he tapped into the power of friends to create Friendfactor, the first gay social network for straight people.
After several conversations with friends about LGBT rights, something clicked. "I realized that gay friends were so much more important [to many people] than gay rights," said Elliot. He discovered that people were more apt to support friends who were gay, rather than the "abstract concept" of supporting gay rights.
"My friends didn't know that I could be legally fired in 29 states for being gay and that I can be legally evicted from my house in over 30 states," Elliot explained. "I realized at the rate we're going, it may take 10 or 20 years before we get our rights."
The act: On impulse, Elliot decided to leverage his social network and created a Give Brian Equality Facebook fan page. To 600 friends, he blasted a message: "Dear friends (and particularly my straight friends), You may not know this, but I am not a full citizen of this country -- nor are the millions of other gay Americans like me [who] can be restricted from getting access to the 1,100+ federal privileges that our government gives married couples. These inequities scare me, because I want to have a family someday. How much longer will I have to wait?"
The ripple: About 300 friends immediately joined Elliot's group. A month later, that number swelled to more than more than 19,000.
Friends and strangers posted heartfelt stories on the Facebook wall. Tim from Thailand wrote: "I'm a U.S. citizen who has been living outside of the U.S. for close to two years now. Why is that? Because my significant other is a citizen of Thailand, and because we are a same-sex couple, I cannot sponsor him for immigration into America. Thus, our only option to stay together is for me to abandon my family and life in the U.S. and for me to work as an English teacher in Thailand."
Kelly from Minnesota wrote: "I love that you took something so basic, so beautiful, so necessary -- and have started what no one else seems to be able to get moving."
Susan from California wrote:" I'm a proud, straight mom of an awesome 27-year-old gay son and member of PFLAG ... you have my 100% support!"
Getting personal has worked. The Friendfactor website launched in early November (beta version). From LGBT news flashes and educational apps to advocacy tools, Friendfactor leverages the power of Facebook's social network via Facebook Connect to empower others to create their own campaign.
LGBT individuals create Friendfactor Advocate profiles and ping their straight friends to create Supporter profiles to support their individual fight for equality. "The reinforcement tells gay people they're not alone at a time when anti-gay bullying and gay suicide are making headlines," says Elliot, who believes more open conversations will make coming out or supporting an LGBT person less taboo.
Elliot's friend and former classmate Patty Buckley, also a recent grad, turned down several lucrative job offers to become Friendfactor's Chief Operating Officer. "We're at a critical moment," Patty said. "It makes me feel like my engagement really mattered, that I could really have an impact. I went from being the passive friend to becoming part of the movement."
More than 150 people have volunteered their talents, time, and energy to support the idea. Elliot and his team were shocked by the show of support from individuals and foundations who have contributed their time and money to get Friendfactor off the ground and online.
"I believe we can be the game changers. We could help my LGBT friends achieve the same support and speed up change. Friends don't let friends be second-class citizens."
The catalyst: Five-year-olds ask a lot of questions. One that Phoebe Russell asked her mother was, Why do the homeless live that way?
It's a question that seemed unanswerable. In Phoebe's city, San Francisco, the homeless population ranges between 6,200 and 15,000, depending on which source you consult. There may be disagreement about the numbers, but the homeless are highly visible in the city that only measures 7 miles by 7 miles.
Phoebe's mother, Kathy Russell, explained about hunger and homelessness. That led to another question: "It makes me sad. Who helps them?"
Phoebe also took this question to her preschool teacher, Kathleen Albert. "She asked me about the people she would see with the signs, why they were hungry. I explained to her some people don't have homes and jobs; some people have really bad things happen to them," Albert recalled.
Phoebe was determined to help. If you ask her why, she'll tell you, "To feed hungry people; they have no food and shelter." Her family would often take cans to the grocery store and recycle them for cash. She asked her parents, "We collect cans at home -- can we do that for the food bank?" Her goal: $1,000 in two months when the school year ended. She decided all proceeds would go to the San Francisco Food Bank.
Phoebe also recruited her preschool class in her new philanthropic project. Albert didn't think it could be done. "I thought 'Five cents a can, one thousand dollars?' It was unrealistic. But Phoebe was adamant about it."
The act: Albert and the classmates were onboard. Phoebe spent her recess crafting a handwritten letter and sent them to 150 friends and family members. In neatly written, oversized letters, she wrote: "My charity project is to raise lots of money for the food bank. They need money. Please give me your soda cans."
Phoebe's enthusiasm was infectious. People dropped off checks, cash, and cans at Phoebe's classroom door. The first couple of weeks, a few bags filled with cans showed up. Over the next few weeks, thousands of cans poured in.
Once a week for two months, Phoebe counted every single bill and coin herself. She stowed the cash in a box she decorated with shiny star stickers and hand-drawn flowers, dollar signs, and the words: "Phoebe's Project. SF Food Bank." A local columnist got wind of the project and wrote about her effort. Word of mouth also carried her message.
"I've never seen so many cans in my life," Albert said. "People would leave them at the preschool door; others put cash in the mailbox. I thought it was great, opening the mailbox full of cash!"
The ripple: By the two-month deadline, just before summer break, Phoebe nearly quadrupled her goal, raising more than $3,700, equaling 18,000 meals. A social networking site devoted to inspiring stories posted an online video about Phoebe's project, and it went viral. Viewers from almost every continent posted comments, including a note of encouragement from first lady Michelle Obama. Churches, teachers, and community leaders shared Phoebe's story, and so did daytime talk shows.
Six months later, the total reached $20,202, or about 80,000 meals. The video was submitted to Tyson Foods' Hunger Relief Challenge, which led to a donation of 15 tons of chicken, enough to bring the total up to 120,000 meals.
Albert said many of the students' parents were rooting for Obama, so the class voted to adopt the campaign slogan. Thus, Phoebe's determination to feed the hungry created a "Yes, we can" preschool campaign.
Phoebe, now 7, is in first grade, and her family and friends volunteer at the San Francisco Food Bank. Perhaps more importantly, she inspires her preschool proteges and fellow classmates to pay it forward. Three students at her former preschool raised more than $5,300. That makes a total of more than 135,000 meals served in her community. "It makes me feel good," she says politely.
Her first question -- "Why do the homeless live that way?" -- may never have a good answer. That second one -- "Who helps them?" -- she answered on her own.
The catalyst: Donald Arthur, a retired bookkeeper, suffered from multiple health concerns, smoked, drank heavily, and didn't watch what he ate. His careless habits as a young man contributed to serious disabilities as he aged: His heart became dangerously enlarged, and later he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. In the spring of 1996, doctors gave him a grim prognosis: Without a heart transplant in six months or less, he would die.
On August 2, 1996, he got his second chance. Arthur received a heart from Fitzgerald (Poochie) Gittens, a 25-year-old Bronx man killed in a horrific case of mistaken identity. Following the successful transplant, Arthur started exercising and joined the Achilles Track Club, a group of mostly disabled runners. Dick Traum, the club's president, nudged Arthur to think about the New York City Marathon.
Arthur, who had never been interested in running, was dumbfounded. "I thought he was absolutely crazy," he recalls. "A marathon? No way!"
The act: Arthur stepped out of his comfort zone and "ran" his first marathon in New York 15 months later. "That's when I began my first journey of 26.6 miles," he says with pride. "I was moved that in my darkest time, others believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. God gave me a second chance. I intend to use it to spread hope." He had moral support: Gittens's brother Mack joined him in that first marathon, and the donor's mother was waiting at the finish line to hang medals around their necks.
Arthur was determined to complete one marathon in all 50 states to honor Gittens and to raise awareness about organ and tissue donation.
Strictly speaking, as a heart transplant recipient, Arthur speed-walks the marathons. It takes him 8 or 9 hours to cover the distance. A host of pre-existing conditions have slowed him down. In 2000, he underwent treatment for prostate cancer. He also had hernia surgery in 2008. Then he experienced crippling back pain until he had spinal surgery in 2009. Recently, he was diagnosed with mild emphysema. Still, he is determined to meet his 50-state mission.
"Because of my transplant, the first few miles are drudging. Sometimes it's hard for me to breathe with my emphysema. My mind plays games on me and says, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Arthur says what keeps him putting one foot in front of the other is the new heart beating inside his chest. "I can do it," he chants. "I focus on my donor family and what they've done for me."
"When I'm running, I say there are two of us running. [Poochie] is there in spirit, but it's just one body."
The ripple: Fifteen years since his heart transplant, Arthur has logged 46 marathons in 33 states, leaving 17 to go.
Arthur's mission to marathon across America proved to be both a personal and professional goal. One of his most memorable experiences: carrying the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games Olympic torch through the streets of New York.
He is the co-founder of Transplant Speakers International, an organization that trains donor recipients to share their stories to raise awareness about organ and tissue donations. Arthur speaks at several organizations and local high schools. Thousands of people, both adults and students, have been inspired by his message. "I talk from the heart. I have no problem crying in front of them. Many kids opened up to me, wrote me letters, and met with me to tell me their problems, things they should never have to encounter," says Arthur. "They tell me how I've inspired them to get their lives back in the right direction."
In a heartfelt letter, one student wrote: "I am writing this simple note to thank you for changing my life. I left my school crying. You blew me away, I was so shocked that you were faced with so many hardships. Always educate kids my age, I know that sometimes we act all tough. But truly we are just waiting for that one person to open us up. I am planning on becoming an organ donor because of your magical words of inspiration. You changed my life and even though I don't know you, I feel as though I've known you forever."
Another student whose grandfather is battling cancer shared: "Hearing you speak to my class Tuesday made me realize that no one knows or is guaranteed tomorrow. You speaking to us made me think about the people I need to start spending more time with. I have a grandfather who I really love, and he is going through radiation. I realized I'll never know if he'll be here tomorrow or a week later, I have to spend more time with him."
Adults have also been touched by Arthur's story, and many have become organ donors. Life-saving stories continue to ripple in. After speaking to a group of nurses at a hospital in the Bronx, Arthur said: "One of the nurses did not have a favorable opinion on organ donation. I was later told her son was involved in a motorcycle accident, and he was declared brain dead. I was later told that because of my having shared my story she donated her son's organs and saved several lives."
Arthur also volunteers with the New York Organ Donor Network, New York Blood Center, and the Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program.
About 30 people who are inspired by Arthur's story fund his 50-state marathon mission (fees, travel, and accommodations) through the Achilles International Organization. You can also donate to his marathon fund.
The catalyst: By day, blogger Laura Miller, 32, worked as an administrative assistant at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her busy workload -- booking schedules, managing projects, and fielding inquiries from students and the public -- didn't allow much time for another important thing she neglected on her to-do list: good will.
The Secret Agent L idea blossomed in July 2009, after she asked one of her blog readers, whom she had befriended, what she wanted for her birthday. Her friend replied, "Don't send me anything; just do a random act of kindness for someone else." They talked about the "secret mission" and even came up with the moniker and tag line: "Secret Agent L, All Around Swell Chick." The self-proclaimed spy girl was up for the challenge. "It was exciting. I thought, fine, I'm going to do something fun." She plotted. Caught up in the excitement, Miller even made Secret Agent L business cards with her blog URL.
Busy with work, she asked her co-conspirator, Vivian Lee Croft, a friend and co-worker, to help her with mission No. 1. Miller attached a homemade business card with thick green ribbon to her first gift, a stem of lavender hydrangea, and asked Croft to leave it on a stranger's windshield wiper.
The first blog title: "Unleash the kindness." She wrote: "It begins. Today we start to unleash anonymous acts of kindness and day-brightening all over Pittsburgh."
"I thought the flower, picked at a nearby garden, would brighten up anybody's day. Who could be upset when looking at a flower?" Miller explained.
The act: Her gifts, about $5 to $10 each, fit her admin salary: coffee gift cards, a roll of quarters wrapped in pink and green ribbons at a Laundromat, sunflower bouquets at graves of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, colorful cards filled with inspirational quotes in public parks and bathrooms.
The first three weeks she carried out and blogged about her mission every day, signing her entries Secret Agent L. She slipped into a bookstore bathroom and left the note, "Happiness is the experience of living every minute, with love, grace, and gratitude."
Quickly, words of appreciation filled her inbox. Nearly a month into the project, though, she realized that giving every day would bust her budget. She called for backup and encouraged readers to execute their own secret missions across America.
The ripple: She received a few responses at first, then dozens. Soon, Miller recruited more than 80 worldwide secret agents in Canada, Denmark, Germany, England, Japan, and Mongolia. The clandestine acts were both creative and practical. One agent gathered a note, a coupon, and enough cash to buy a bag of diapers, then left the items at an diaper-changing station in a public bathroom.
Miller blogged about her drop-offs and Affiliate Agents' good deeds. She also suggested follow-up acts: "Mission: Holy Coffee! What better place to leave a kind gesture than a church? Maybe the person who stops in for morning Mass tomorrow will treat a friend to a cup of joe afterwards. Wouldn't that be a great start to the day?"
A local Pittsburgh TV news station featured the secret project. Then other TV networks, bloggers, and websites helped her message go viral at Kirtsy.com, the Huffington Post, Reader's Digest, CNN, and Fox News.
These days, Miller receives about 1,000 daily blog hits, and she's received more than 2,500 email testimonies about these simple, thoughtful, inexpensive gestures. Nathan in Pittsburgh emailed, "I sat down on the park bench next to the package and read the words on the front of the envelope over and again: "For you! Yes ... you!" But, surely, it couldn't have been for me. Why would it be? But then, what if it was...? I was touched by this random act of kindness. Call it serendipity, but just when I was losing hope in myself and life's purpose, something like this comes along. I'll be sure to keep myself open to other little gestures that may be out there, keep trying, and, of course, pay it forward when I can."
George from Massachusetts wrote about finding a card in a restroom on top of Mount Everett, the fifth highest peak in Massachusetts. "When I first opened the card, I was overwhelmed -- I sat there and cried, wondering how did you know, how wonderful it was that you thought to leave that card for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Exactly one year after Secret Agent L launched her project, she revealed her identity. "I saw the positive response the project was getting. I wanted to get out in the community as a real person to see what I could do to spread kindness," said Miller. So far, she and her Associate Agents have completed more than 300 missions. "How easy it is to pay attention to the people around you," Miller says. "Imagine what 2 to 3 minutes could do to brighten someone else's day. It's the easiest and simplest thing to do."
The catalyst: Every weekday, Jorge Munoz starts his shift at 5:15 a.m. He drives a school bus, picking up elementary schoolchildren at a bus stop and dropping them off at a few schools on Long Island in New York. As part of his regular route home, he passes a food factory.
Something always bothered him: "These guys, they were throwing away a lot of food. A lot of trays," he said. One day in 2004, Munoz couldn't stand seeing good food go to waste. He pulled over and asked if they would give him the goods.
The food wasn't for him. "I knew some families, they having trouble, they had no food to eat and no job," he explained. "Two weeks later, I came back to get some food and gave it to about 10 families that didn't have food. Only two people in those families had a job."
Munoz, a Colombian immigrant who came to America about 24 years ago, loves to eat, especially food from his homeland. One night he ventured into the Jackson Heights neighborhood for some Colombian cuisine. Munoz noticed about a dozen day laborers milling around and pulled over. "I rolled down my window and asked them what are they doing. They tell me they are immigrants, they are hungry and homeless."
The food he received from the factory turned out to be a one-time thing. Munoz scrambled to figure out how to continue helping the hungry families and the day laborers he had befriended. He collected small food donations from local businesses, but those weren't enough. He started to use money from his own salary to buy food, brown-bag meals, and handed them out to eight day laborers, three times a week. The 8 soon tripled to 24.
A few months later, Munoz and his mother started cooking meals for 45 people in his shoe-box-sized apartment. The economy worsened, and the hungry population grew. More than half of his weekly salary of $700 went to buy more food, drinks, and packaging.
The act: For the past six and a half years, Munoz has been delivering home-cooked meals every night out of his white Toyota pickup. He has missed only one night, when a snowstorm shut down all lines of transportation. These days, about 140 people -- many of them homeless, jobless immigrants -- queue up in a line that stretches nearly one block.
His makeshift meal program has turned into a well-oiled nonprofit called An Angel in Queens. A handful of volunteers, including his mother and sister, begin prepping the food around 1:30 p.m. When Munoz returns from his day shift, he switches gears from bus driver to good samaritan, with a 10-minute break for coffee in between.
The volunteers have learned to work in synchronicity in a tight space, shuffling past each other in the apartment turned soup kitchen. The kitchen and living room look more like food pantries, stacked with crates of small juice cartons, produce bags, and trays of hot food. There's always the smell of onions cooking in oil, beans, and meat, but the menu changes nightly, ranging from ham and cheese sandwiches to beans, rice, and chicken. The family multiplies whatever they're having for dinner by 140.
Munoz attributes his motives to "God. God and my mom. My mom since my childhood teach me to share, and that's what we are doing here."
And he shares the family spirit with every person who receives a meal. "They feel like a part of the family. Most of them, they are alone. I got my mom, my sister, my nephew, my friends, a lot of members of my family are out here. But they are alone. But at least they feel like they have a small family taking care of them."
The ripple: Munoz's generosity has been contagious, and his friends and the community have chipped in. "A couple of times a week, I go to collect food from my friends. Some buy extra oil and rice. Other friends, some have restaurants tell me to go pick up extra food they cook," Munoz says. "Whatever I don't have, I need, I go to stores to pick up." In June of 2008 a couple of volunteers helped him set up his website and nonprofit.
Soon word about An Angel in Queens spread through local, national, and international media. The blogosphere blasted his message. His selfless act has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, Univision, and Telemundo. That coverage has inspired the global community to reach out with support: monetary donations, appliances, food, drinks, and lots of thank-you emails.
The Mira Foundation has replicated his operation. In two cities in New York, volunteers pack about 300 sandwiches and hand them out to the needy in New Jersey and 150 people in Long Island, three times a week.
Munoz has received personal recognition as well. Renowned chef Jamie Oliver featured him on his cooking show, "Jamie's American Road Trip." He also got a presidential nod. Munoz, his mother, sister, and nephew visited President Barack Obama at the White House in August and received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honor behind the Medal of Freedom.
His biggest reward comes from those he serves. "You have to see their faces, when they smile, that's the way I get paid," Munoz says. "When they smile, thanks God, this guy got something to eat tonight."