Sometimes a story you read can take you back to vivid memories of your own. And so it was when I read Jaime Thurston’s story of how she created the kindness website, 52 Lives.
This is how she told the story in an interview last year:
“It began in 2013, when I came across a wanted ad on a classified website – it was a young mum looking for someone to donate a rug to cover her broken floor so her toddler wouldn’t cut his feet.
She sounded desperate. I didn’t have a rug, but I emailed her to offer to collect a rug if anyone donated one. The more I learned about her, the more I wanted to help. She had escaped a bad domestic situation and was starting over again with her three children.
After periods of homelessness – and even living in a garden shed – they finally had a home but they had nothing and no-one to help them.
My friends and family ended up helping with all sorts of things for her house. The day I delivered them, she was in tears, and it wasn’t because of the things I was giving her – it was the fact that people cared about her.
I remember driving away from her house with such a good feeling (it was only later that I learnt a bit more about the science behind why I felt that way… kindness changes our body chemistry and gives us a natural high). But more than anything, I felt like it had been so simple to help make that woman’s life better.
I knew I wanted to do more, and so at 5am one morning, with a toddler on my lap, I created a Facebook page and called it 52 Lives. I thought it would be a little way for my friends and family to help people in need, but it has since grown into a global movement of almost 100,000 people who unite every week to change people’s lives.”
The rug got to me
It was that rug that got to me, taking me back almost two decades to a time when I was working on a US-funded aid project in Western Serbia known as Community Revitalization through Democratic Action (CRDA). The idea was to help and inspire citizens to develop small projects that would make life better in their communities, following a difficult decade in the Balkans.
It was not the kind of project that gave people goods, although there was tremendous poverty and need in many of the places we worked.
I lived in one of the communities in the region, unlike the rest of the international staff, who lived in the Serbian capital. And so I got to meet people who I likely never would have met otherwise – including, in the case of this story, women who attended a weekend workshop held by one of the local NGOs we worked with.
Some of the women lived at the collective centre for refugees from Kosovo. And one day, several of them came to our office to talk with me. They wanted to invite me to come and visit the centre. As we sat and drank coffee at the big table in the main office, I did my best to first make sure that they knew that our project did not provide aid in the more traditional sense. This is always hard, because it doesn’t feel polite, but I had learned it was better to be as clear as I could upfront, to avoid misunderstandings. (The odd thing was that this seemed to be so uncommon that in some cases, it convinced some local people that we would actually be able to help them – because they had so often been promised things that never materialized.)
But, having clarified what our project did and didn’t do, I agreed to come and visit. One of the local staff members, Kaja, agreed to come and help me with translation, because I didn’t speak the local language.
They took us on a tour, and it has remained engraved in my memory ever since. In large rooms, blankets had been strung up to create more private space for people around their beds. So many of them greeted me with pictures of the homes they had once had in Kosovo; some had pictures of the rubble after those homes had been destroyed.
The bathroom that they shared was tiny, about the size of a small closet, but it was clean. A shower had been rigged up on one wall, but there was no separate shower facility.
They needed a carpet
After the tour, we gathered in the meeting room. Women sat along the benches on the side. Our hostess asked if we would like coffee, and I said yes – but when it came, two small cups on a metal tray with a lace doily, and I realized that there was no coffee for anyone else, it was hard to drink that coffee. I had forgotten one of the key rules of village hospitality – bring coffee, and sugar, with you when you visit so people are not embarrassed that they can’t provide you with a cup.
I asked what they needed. And the first thing they said was a carpet, so the children could play on it. Then they wanted cleaning supplies. And then backpacks for the kids who went to school. But I didn’t make any promises.
I thanked them for their hospitality, and Kaja and I walked back to the office. “We must do something to help,” she said. “Yes,” I agreed. It was that carpet for the kids that had really gotten to me.
She told people in the office, and they began to call people they knew. And soon enough, people were promising donations and bringing things that they could spare. One person asked if a local store would give a discount on the backpacks, and I contributed my own money to pay the cost. It was heartening to watch people swing into action, to help one another.
(And next time we visited, I remembered to bring coffee, and sugar, and chocolate for the children, as Serbian hospitality dictates.)
Kindness is, as Jaime Thurston believes, contagious. It is the kind of virus that needs to spread, and will, once people know it is needed. And it created relationships between the people living in the collective centre and the local people that outlasted the time I lived in the community.
One final postscript. When I was leaving the project (not willingly, may I say), the wonderful team of people I worked with organized a party at a local restaurant. They invited people we had worked with, and asked me if there was anyone I wanted to invite.
I remembered the ladies from the collective centre, but I didn’t want them to feel obliged. Please tell them they don’t have to bring anything with them, I said.
When they arrived, I went over to greet them. They had brought a beautiful hand woven carpet, for which I gave profuse thanks. But the biggest thing, it turned out, was that they had gotten to dress up and come to a party – it had been a long time since they had been able to do that.
Kindness is contagious
Jaime Thurston came back from her visit to the woman who wanted a rug for her toddler to play on, and created a Facebook group so others could help those who need kindness. And it turned out that when people know someone needs help, they are generous in sharing what they have.
“When I started 52 Lives, it was just a way for my friends and family to help people. People liked what we were doing – the Facebook page slowly gained supporters and after about 18 months there were around 4000 people who followed it, and we were doing – usually small but lovely – things to help someone each week.
Everything changed in 2015, when I was surprised by Holly Willoughby on the TV show Surprise Surprise. They had so many people we had helped in the audience and had even flown the first family we ever helped over from Australia.”
In 2016, she won an award from Clarins, and she used it to start a School of Kindness, which teaches altruism to school children.
“I like doing something that matters and that contributes in some way to making the world better,” Jaime says. “And I don’t just mean by giving people things – we do give people tangible help, but the people we help all say the same thing – that it wasn’t the ‘thing’ we gave them that changed their life. It was the kindness and the fact that someone cared about them.”
“Kindness improves our physical and mental health – whether we’re receiving kindness, giving kindness or even just witnessing kindness. It is such a powerful force for change, and determines the kind of world we have.”
Interview with Jaime Thurston, CEO of the kindness charity 52 Lives. Talented Ladies Club, Jun. 26, 2020
52 Lives website.