In mid-December 2012, Mary Latham sat in her midtown Manhattan office scrolling through the horrifying headlines telling of an armed suspect shooting 20 innocent children and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school. Latham, who had been working at a law institute during the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, was worried about how she would explain the senseless killings to the 6-year-old she regularly babysat.
A coworker who swung by her desk and told her about a man who was buying free coffee for strangers at a local Starbucks offered respite, and a routine phone call with her mother, Pat, further helped soothe her.
“She told me there’s always going to be these terrible things that happen, and we have to focus on the guy that got them coffee this morning,” Latham, now 29, recalled to FoxNews.com.
Latham is still grieving the death of her mother, who lost a battle with recurrent breast cancer at age 61 in 2013. But Latham, a professional photographer, is honoring her message through the GrAttitude Project, a nationwide effort in which she is driving across the country, bunking with strangers, and collecting stories of good deeds for her website. The project takes a similar approach to that of the viral Facebook series "Humans of New York," and is an extension of a short-lived Facebook campaign that Latham and a friend began after her mother’s death.
Exchanging positive stories in her mother’s hospital room helped Latham’s family cope, and Latham plans to compile the anecdotes she gathers on her road trip for a book she will distribute to hospitals across the nation.
“[A hospital] is such a depressing place, and having something like that around would give people hope,” Latham said.
Latham is making her way across the country in her mom’s 2008 Subaru Outback, starting last fall in New England, and raises awareness of her mission through local media and coffee shops where she hands out information pamphlets. She has launched a campaign on GoFundMe.com to help cover costs for gas and food. Although she plans to fly home to Orient, Long Island, for a couple of weddings next year, she does not have a timeline or deadline for the project.
“I just want to meet as many people as I can,” said Latham, who has traveled to Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire so far.
Marianne Morgan, the first stranger Latham stayed with, in Westerly Rhode Island, saw a Sunday article in the area’s local paper and reached out to offer Latham a bed for the night of Nov. 4.
“Negative news seems to catch more people’s interest than positive news,” Morgan told FoxNews.com. “[Latham’s] feeling of spreading hope and that people really are so nice and so kind, but you just hear about the bad ones— I loved the message, and I wanted to promote that by helping her in any way we could.”
The two shared bottles of Angry Orchard apple cider and ate slices of pizza while watching the TV show “This Is Us,” and although a stranger, Latham seemed to Morgan like an old friend. The story she offered Latham involved how a wrong email address led her to begin a long-distance friendship with a former stranger she continues to email. In fact, the experience led Morgan to open her home to Latham in the first place.
Morgan said she thinks people don’t talk face to face enough, which prevents many stories from being shared and connections from being made.
“I’ve found that anywhere in the world that I’ve gone, if you listen to people, they’re more than happy to give you advice or help you— it’s just to let them in that is the biggest hurdle,” Morgan said.
Not all of the folks Latham has met have opened up immediately. She tells subjects they don’t have to share their stories, but has found that after a few minutes of talking, people begin to feel ease.
Latham recalled a story of a Connecticut mom of three whom she met toward the beginning of her trip. The woman described how she spent four months living in a hospital at her husband’s bedside as he battled cancer.
“She was able to meet up and talk to me about how great the nurses had been,” Latham recalled, “and she has three young daughters, and I swung by to get a picture of them, and [she] gave me a journal and bag of apples.
“It’s been really overwhelming how cool everyone’s been and how excited people are,” Latham added. “I think that it is making it very clear that this was really needed.”
For Latham, traveling the country with her camera and a trunk full of custom T-shirts that read “more good” is continuing to help her cope with the loss of her mother.
On Christmas Day, she is staying with Kim Roche, of Mansfield, Massachusetts, who saw a friend post about the GrAttitude Project on Facebook and got in touch with Latham to offer her a bed.
Similar to Morgan, Roche had never hosted a stranger before, but she supports Latham’s effort to spread more good.
“Obviously, there’s a lot going in the world that is so negative … people are grabbed by it more,” Roche told FoxNews.com. “You don’t see as many of the positive stories, and I’d hope everybody has experienced someone doing something nice, whether it’s the person buying your coffee in the morning, or during tough times when people are there for you.
“Mary is taking such a leap everywhere she goes that how can we not take one for her?” she added.
Like Latham, Roche, a mother of two 9-year-old twin boys, has lost a parent to cancer.
“Anybody that loses somebody they love, at the holidays it’s different from that point on, and it’s something that we still struggle with,” Roche said.
Latham described her mother as “a bright light in my life” who “made me see the good in people and situations, and to be a good person and optimistic, no matter what.”
“For me to do this trip is such a big undertaking, and there will be moments that are discouraging,” Latham said, “but think it’s important for me to do it, and to do it alone, and try to make this really beautiful thing— a book that people can read and be uplifted for her.”