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Crowd Welcomes Home Woman Who Found Kindness Nationwide

Patch logo Patch 12/1/2019 Lisa Finn
a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera © Lisa Finn.

NORTH FORK, NY — A joyful and exuberant crowd gathered on the Orient Causeway Saturday to welcome home a local woman who has spent three years collecting stories of kindness from across the country.

And now, the journey complete, friends, family and supporters, some wearing "More Good" shirts, welcomed Mary Latham back— cheering, waving, carrying balloons and chanting as they opened their arms in a collective embrace.

In 2016, Latham packed up her car "Old Blue" and headed out on an epic cross country road trip to find stories of goodness and gratitude — all in memory of her beloved mother, whom she lost to cancer.

Latham, whose made headlines and memories with her "More Good Today" project, drove Old Blue, covered with stickers reflecting her many stops along the way, across the causeway Saturday, raising her hand in triumph out the sun roof as she headed to the Orient Firehouse for cake, champagne, and a celebration of a journey of the heart.

The many who bundled up and stood ready to welcome Latham home were inspired by her journey: "My wife Ellie and I had the pleasure of first meeting Mary at an impromptu writing workshop that was held at our home in June of 2018," Rick Coffey said. "When it was her turn to read her work, Mary briefly spoke about her mother, her untimely passing and the words her mother gave that inspired her to pursue and write about 'More Good' in the world. The passage she read that night was deeply moving and I remember whispering to Ellie how inspiring it was and something so necessary and needed in the world today. From that day forward, we have both followed Mary’s journey through the 50 states and we so looked forward to meeting her again when she returned home today."

a person in a car talking on a cell phone: Mary Latham returns home. / Courtesy Rick Coffey © Provided by Patch Mary Latham returns home. / Courtesy Rick Coffey

Along the way, Latham captured her experience with words, stories and images, chronicling the kindness and acts of pure goodness she found in every corner of the country.

Her "More Good Today" project includes a Facebook page as well as a website and a newsletter where she has collected stories of people touching lives by paying it forward. All told, she visited 154 homes, traversed 43,000 miles and visited 50 states.

Latham, said coming home sparked a sea of mixed emotions. "But mostly, it feels really good to know that I can sit still for a moment," she said.

a person in a car: Meghan Thomas Photographer / Courtesy Mary Latham © Provided by Patch Meghan Thomas Photographer / Courtesy Mary Latham

Reflecting on her journey, Latham discussed what she's witnessed over the past three years.

"What I've seen is a million broken hearts across a country that is desperate for kindness," she said. "Hearts that are trying incredibly hard to keep going after being shattered by tragedy or immense hardship. That is our country. Beautiful and very, very broken. And the only real way we are going to survive is by actively showing our goodness and our hearts as much as we possibly can."

Latham said she emerges from the journey forever changed. "I've become incredibly grateful for what I already have and much more aware of the impact the small moments have on someone," she said. "The tiniest moments of kindness shown are the ones that often have the ability to change the entire trajectory of someone's life. It's really how my entire story started. One cup of coffee bought for a stranger on December 14, 2012."

a person wearing sunglasses and standing next to a body of water: Supporters wore "More Good" shirts to welcome Mary Latham home. / Lisa Finn © Provided by Patch Supporters wore "More Good" shirts to welcome Mary Latham home. / Lisa Finn

Describing that day, Latham's story returns to her mother, who was the heart and meaning behind every mile she traveled.

Latham's mother, Pat, was only 61 when she died after a long battle with breast cancer. But even when facing the most daunting fight of her life, Pat focused on finding the beauty and hope in the world and not letting tragedy and despair overcome, Latham said.

Latham will always remember words of wisdom from her mom. When Latham, who was working as an assistant at a continuing legal education firm in New York, learned about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, she was in tears.

"I called my mom. I used to call her every day when I got to work," she said. Crying, she shared her grief about the Newtown tragedy. Then she told her about a stranger who had bought her co-workers coffee at Starbuck's, paying it forward.

"She told me that there were always going to be these terrible things that happen. You have to focus on that other story, that person who bought coffee for others. Those are the things you have to focus on," Latham said.

In those words, an idea was born.

Over states and endless miles, there are stories that stand out, Latham said.

"The M&M story will always stand out the most for me," she said. "It is yet another example of the value in small acts, and the reminder that we are all capable of doing them. And, hopefully, the encouragement to do them more often."

Latham then retold that story, as it was told to her: "I was about 24 years old working as a teller at the Washington Trust Co. on Block Island for the summer. It was a crazy, busy day, and I was tired, stressed and grumpy. My customer — a young woman around my age — and I exchanged pleasantries. She mentioned I looked stressed out. I casually answered it was nothing some M&Ms couldn't cure. I cashed her check, and she went on her way. When I looked up to call the next customer a half-hour later she walked up and handed me some peanut M&Ms. ... I'm 52 now, and I've never forgotten that day. I've shared the story with my children a few times over the years so they remember just how powerful a simple act of kindness can be. I believe that her kindness to me that day and the effect it had on me has led me to be a kinder gentler soul."

a car parked on the side of a road: Old Blue. / Courtesy Rick Coffey. © Provided by Patch Old Blue. / Courtesy Rick Coffey.

During every hour and mile she traveled in Old Blue, her mother's Subaru, Latham said she has felt her mother by her side.

"She was there — she had to be. There's no other reason I'd be crossing back over the causeway after what, and how, I did what I did by myself if she wasn't watching over this entire trip," Latham said. If she were able to speak to her mother just once again, "I'd tell her I miss her, and 'thank you.'"

After hearing stories from voices nationwide, Latham has a message for those struggling to find good in seemingly hopeless lives and situations.

"Let people help you," she said. "They want to help, and often they don't know what to do. If you're going through a hard time, let those offering to assist the chance. We need each other."

But if a person is feeling hopeless because of what's going on around them in the world, they should start searching for the good, she added.

"You have to look for it," Latham said. "If you're watching the news, or sitting on your phone, or surrounding yourself with people who make you feel small … you won't find good. It's a choice, every single day, to search for that good. It's all around us. The moment we put down the distractions is the moment we start looking around and seeing what's going on in our communities. We start noticing ways we can help. Instead of complaining about the problems, look at them as opportunities. We can be part of the solutions. Really, they're giving us purpose. If you can't find good, be it."

a woman standing in front of a cake: Mary Latham was welcomed home with a celebration at the Orient Firehouse. / Courtesy Rick Coffey. © Provided by Patch Mary Latham was welcomed home with a celebration at the Orient Firehouse. / Courtesy Rick Coffey.

Now that she'll be back home, Latham has plans. First, she said, she wants to take a long nap. Then she's going to begin putting together her experiences for a book she'd like to donate to hospital waiting rooms.

Latham's story began long before she began collecting the experiences of others. In 2009, Latham said, when she neared the pinnacle of Pike's Peak with her mother, the world was open before her, filled with opportunity and promise.

She had just graduated college and was about to move to Manhattan and live with her two sisters — and yet, she was stressed about finding a job. A few months later, she began working and pursuing her passion, photography, in her free moments.

"A few years later, cancer took my mom away. And from that point on, I made a promise to myself: I'd only do things that make me happy. No matter how scary or how ridiculous they seemed. Because fear for me was losing her. And I managed to make my way through that time. There isn't a second I don't think of her, miss her, wish she was able to see all she has inspired me to do on this journey ... but I realized something after she died. Fear didn't have much meaning anymore."

Of course, she said, she was scared starting the road trip, especially when the car makes a weird sound and she's all alone in the middle of nowhere. "But they're just fleeting moments. Brief little attempts to derail me and send me back home. I ignore them. Daily," she wrote.

Latham left the North Fork on Oct. 29, 2016 — appropriately, in her mother's car, on a journey to honor the woman whose loss forever altered her life. She packed her mom's 2008 blue Subaru Outback and headed to 50 states, where she has met with people and heard their stories about giving back, about good and positivity during a time when the political landscape is marked by turmoil and negativity.

Latham described how her mother's death colored every page in the book of her life.

"After my mom passed way, I quit my job at a law firm in Manhattan and bought a one-way ticket to the Caribbean and changed my life," she said. "It was brave and crazy. But it was mostly the best decision, the best thing I could have possibly done."

Later, she lived in Italy for a few months.

When her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Latham was only 13 years old. "I attempted to run away, because I thought, 'This means she dies.' I didn't understand."

And over the next years, Latham said her mother triumphed many times over cancer's setbacks.

"She kept getting through all of it, and I thought she was always going to be fine, and fight through it, because she was so strong."

But as the cancer worsened in 2013, Latham found comfort and strength in sharing stories sent to her from individuals about random acts of kindness, including a roommate who lost a phone in a cab but saw it returned, to her door, by a good Samaritan.

Eleven days after she launched her project aimed at finding good and gratitude, Latham's mom had surgery at Sloan Kettering, a surgery where there had been "only a small chance of it going wrong. But it did." Only hours later, Latham and her family were gathered in that waiting room, during the worst minutes and hours of their lives; her mom died at midnight on a Friday.

"We were all in that waiting room, and I'd gone to my email and read them a few stories" from those sharing stories of acts of kindness, Latham said. "We were all just crying, but those stories were nice, a little piece of hope during a really horrible time."

Latham, who'd promised her mother that she'd turn the idea for the project into a book one day, has held fast to the hope that the published book, after her road trip, will be shared among hospital waiting rooms.

"People are in hospital waiting rooms, during the worst times of their lives, waiting for the people they love so much to die," she said.

The book is meant to offer hope and will be dedicated to her mother, Latham said.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: A crowd ready to cheer Mary Latham on the last miles of her journey. / Lisa Finn © Provided by Patch A crowd ready to cheer Mary Latham on the last miles of her journey. / Lisa Finn

And now, she's home, back into the arms of family and friends who have followed her every step of the way.

"I began my journey crossing the Orient Causeway and boarding the ferry to my first state, Connecticut, three years ago. I figured since it was such a big moment for me to be crossing back over, I'd invite people in my community — a community who has supported and shown so much love for my mission— to be there with me," Latham said. "The journey has been the most difficult thing I've ever done, but also the most rewarding. It can get very lonely, though. And after so much time alone on the road, I didn't want to do this last mile by myself."

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