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Photographer puts everything on hold to travel the country collecting stories of kindness

Mary Latham plans to spend the next year crisscrossing the country chronicling acts of kindness for her web documentary project, More Good Today.
/ Source: TODAY

Some of the stories are simple, like the one from Kelly O'Donnell, a former Rhode Island bank teller who recalled the time she told a customer she was having a bad day, only to have the woman return later with a bag of peanut M&M's to cheer her up.

Other accounts are life-changing, like the one about Ken Sawtelle, who donated a kidney to a close friend at Maine Medical Center, where they both worked.

Those acts of kindness, and many more, are being shared as part of More Good Today, a website and social media journal launched by New York photographer Mary Latham dedicated to chronicling positive stories from people’s lives.

Since Oct. 29, Latham, 29, has been on a road trip to visit all 50 states to collect stories and photographs from people who’ve been touched by the generosity of others.

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"It doesn't have to be arranged, or this crazy story, it can be anything that's making people feel good,” Latham told TODAY recently. “It's been really quite exciting to see all of it come together.”

Through Facebook, local newspapers and her website, Latham has put out a call asking people to "send a story or offer a couch.” She also launched a GoFundMe account to help cover the trip’s expenses.

"It started out as friends of friends, but now I'm on my fourth night of staying with people who have just emailed through my website, and everyone has been so incredibly welcoming,” said Latham, who works as a wedding photographer.

She expects her journey to take at least a year. Once she returns home to Orient, on Long Island’s eastern end, she hopes to turn the project into a book that she will donate to hospital waiting rooms.

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Latham has been focusing on the topic of gratitude since 2012, when she and her mother shared a despondent phone conversation on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Amid the grief, Latham told her mom, Pat, she’d heard about a man who unexpectedly treated his fellow customers to $100 worth of coffee at a nearby Starbucks.

"My mom said, these are the people we should focus on during difficult times,” she said.

So she and a friend launched a Facebook page called The GrAttitude Project, inviting readers to submit stories about random acts of kindness.

Shortly after the page went live in February 2013, Pat, who was 61 and battling breast cancer, became unexpectedly ill after what was supposed to be routine surgery. She died four days later.

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During her mother’s last days, Latham said she and her family comforted themselves at the hospital by reading aloud stories from The GrAttitude Project Facebook page.

"They provided the tiniest bit of hope for us during a very dark time," she says in a video describing her road trip. “The stories were a constant reminder that there was still good in the world, despite how badly I felt, and I began to wonder how many other people were out there sitting in hospital waiting rooms needing a reminder too."

Her mother’s death inspired Latham to turn her full attention to The GrAttitude Project, and the idea for More Good Today and the book was born.

Piloting her mom’s old Subaru, Latham recently crisscrossed New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine, where she spoke to Barbara and Steven Sullivan, whose son, Patrick, underwent a stem-cell transplant to treat lymphoma last spring.

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On the day of the procedure at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, Barbara was in the hospital’s chapel listening to harpist Nancy Kleiman play.

The two chatted briefly and Kleiman asked Barbara for her son's name. She wanted to pray for him.

"After I got back upstairs to Patrick's room, the chaplain was praying with us and suddenly I heard music coming from the hallway,” Sullivan told TODAY.

“Nancy had looked us up — there are four floors where they do stem cell transplants — but she found us."

Kleiman stayed outside while the transplant was taking place, playing her harp for two hours.

Latham heard the story when she met the Sullivans for coffee near their home in South Portland.

“I was crying at that point,” she said. "I try to control myself with these stories but sometimes I just can't.”

Barbara Sullivan said she was inspired to share their story with Latham after reading about her in the Portland Press Herald.

“Our motto has always been pay it forward … so we wrote Mary an email, never thinking she would write back, but we are so glad she did," she said.

"You know how some things are meant to be? That's what this was."

This story is part of NBCU's Share Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness