For as long as she can remember, Cathy O'Grady has enjoyed bringing a smile to the faces of total strangers. She would treat people in line next to her at a cafe to lunch or coffee, for no reason other than the simple pleasure of making someone's day. But O'Grady says she was truly inspired her to commit her life to performing random acts of kindness after her mother's death from breast cancer 15 years ago.
"Although she didn't have a lot of monetary things to offer, her heart was always out there, and she taught me to love everybody and anybody," O'Grady told The Huffington Post. "We are all one fire away from being homeless, we are all going through our own struggles. She taught me to split whatever I have in half and give it to someone else."
For 12 years, O'Grady searched for the perfect way to honor her mother, and she's convinced the right path found her several years ago. A simple compliment about a friend's bracelet started a conversation about jewelry making, and before she knew it, the native of Watertown, Mass., had turned a hobby into a charitable enterprise.
Cathy's Creations started small, with beaded crochet bracelets. O'Grady said she tended to her full-time accounting job by day and her jewelry making by night, selling the pieces through an online store and donating the profits to breast cancer organizations to honor her mother.
As her Facebook network expanded, O'Grady said she noticed her followers often asked if she would make bracelets to help raise awareness for a specific illness, condition or people in need. O'Grady realized that her philanthropic hobby could reach many more people through such focused fundraising, and decided to make "cause" bracelets, with profits from particular designs going to targeted organizations or families.
She expanded her product line to include pendants and key chains at around the time she had another revelation.
"It was Thanksgiving, and I noticed that a lot of people were struggling to put a Thanksgiving dinner on their table," she said. From the profits on non-dedicated lines of jewelry, O'Grady donated $50 Walmart gift cards to families in the Boston area to help them afford a holiday meal. The success of that experience, she said, inspired her 25 Days of Giving for Christmas and every charitable project she has pursued since.
Last Friday, O'Grady took to the streets of Boston with her friend Colleen Wogernese to perform 318 random acts of kindness. Wogernese's husband recently died from Ewing's sarcoma, a rare from of cancer, at age 29 -- 318 is the number of days her husband lived with the disease.
O'Grady had helped the Wogerneses raise more than $1,000 for a final vacation to Disney World last year, and Colleen decided she wanted to show her appreciation for the nurses who had made her husband as comfortable as possible during his illness. Wogernese and O'Grady, together with a team of volunteers, handed out 250 nurse survival kits, left lottery tickets around the city, and bought coffee for strangers in honor of Wogernese's late husband.
Boston locals have only recently begun to recognize the random acts of kindness being performed throughout their city as the work of O'Grady and her team. O'Grady said she loves leaving blankets, hats and scarves on park benches and walking away. She said she doesn't do it for the credit. Instead, she watches from a distance to see the reactions of her recipients.
Her motivation is simple, she says: "I just want people to feel loved."
O'Grady said that her most extensive project to date also proved to be the most emotional. Shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, O'Grady dedicated a series of 26 random acts of kindness to the memory of the brave students and faculty who lost their lives. O'Grady says she learned about their lives and dreams from their loved ones and tailored each act to reflect their personalities. On Day 27, she made an anonymous donation to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the hope of helping to prevent other tragedies in the future.
O'Grady said she tries to bring her 7-year-old son, Matthew, on as many projects as possible, so that he can learn from his grandmother's legacy.
"My mom always told me to be careful what type of person you're going to turn over into the world, so I'm taking that to heart," said O'Grady. "I want him to be as compassionate and loving as my mom was."
h/t Boston Magazine