Traveling in a small blue sedan with yellow magnetic signs on the side, Liz Buechele is making a cross-country road trip to spread joy through random acts of kindness.
Through her nonprofit The Smile Project, the 2012 Seneca Valley High School graduate is working with nonprofits, small businesses and other community groups as she travels southwest to the West Coast and returns northeast to the Pittsburgh area over the course of 56 days.
“The idea was to be in one city paying it forward to the next,” Buechele said. The goal is to show that no matter what a person looks like or where they live, they are connected by the bounds of human kindness.
Buechele and Zack Shively, her friend and the group's marketing and logistics manager, left Cranberry Township June 23. They will return to the area Aug. 16, Shively said.
The chain of giving began in New York City, where Buechele lives when not on the road. A friend runs Cubs for Coping, a group that makes teddy bears to donate to eating disorder treatment centers, hospitals and homeless shelters in that region.
Buechele took teddy bears from that group and donated them to the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh Area as the first act of kindness for the trip. In turn, the staff and children at the shelter made cards for heart patients in a hospital in Roanoke, Va.
The American Heart Association then donated cookbooks that Buechele took to the Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit Women Under Grace, a women's empowerment organization, to give to its members.
Along the way, Buechele and Shively are also performing smaller acts of kindness wherever they can. In Columbus, N.C., they met with cartoonist Steve Barr who runs a group called Drawn to Help that teaches pediatric patients at hospitals how to draw and gives them art supplies.
Barr gave them 10 signed cartooning books to give out to children they meet along the way.
They paid for two cups of coffee for random customers at a coffee shop in Charleston, S.C. They transported baskets filled with pet supplies by Girl Scouts in Savannah, Ga., to an animal rescue shelter in Atlanta, Ga.
“Little things like that have been fun to sprinkle kindness and then head on to the next spot,” Buechele said.
The Smile Project is an organization dedicated to creating joy through personal connections and random acts of kindness, which it does in part by operating Strengthening Positivity and Reinforcing Kindness, or SPARK, clubs at various secondary and post-secondary schools.
There are SPARK clubs at Westminster College, Buechele's alma mater, Slippery Rock University and Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem.
It all started on Nov. 9, 2011, with a Facebook post.
Buechele said she was driving home from school, enjoying the ride and listening to music when it occurred to her how happy she was in that simple moment.
Like any 17-year-old would do, she said she posted about it on social media. “Day 1: Happiness is. those perfect car rides where the radio just plays all the right songs,” the first post read.
She didn't think too much about it at the time, but Buechele continued posting each day about what “happiness is” to show the simple things in life for which she was thankful or gave her joy.
“That's all it was really supposed to be,” she said. “I mean, I was 17, but I was building this community of people who really liked this expression of joy.”
A year and a half ago, Buechele received a grant to officially start The Smile Project as a nonprofit organization to begin spreading the joy in earnest through acts of kindness.
Some of the stops on the road trip were carefully planned, based on the groups that are there or cities Buechele and Shively wanted to visit. Other cities they stop in, make connections with locals and see how they can help.
Those who want to follow along can find The Smile Project on Facebook, on Instagram at @thesmileprojectofficial or online at www.the-smile-project.com.