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‘People who aren’t being nice need kindness most’: the woman who spreads altruism for a living

Jaime Thurston’s charity, 52 Lives, focuses on a family or individual to help in every week of the year. Here’s what she has learned about the ripple effect of kindness

Jaime Thurston’s charity, 52 Lives, focuses on a family or individual to help in every week of the year. Here’s what she has learned about the ripple effect of kindness

This is a story about a rug. It’s a story about a rug and chopped tomatoes. A story about a rug, chopped tomatoes and kindness – and how kindness ripples through communities. But first, an advert.

Wanted: rug!!! (Or words to that effect.) That was the post Berkshire-based Jaime Thurston spotted on a website in 2013 when she was shopping for secondhand furniture. She didn’t have a rug. But the bold text and exclamation points drew her in.

Thurston emailed the advert’s author. It was a woman who wanted a rug so that her kids would stop cutting their feet on the floor. She sounded desperate.

“Where she lived was quite remote and she mentioned in the ad that she didn’t have a car,” Thurston remembers. “So, I said if somebody does donate one, I might be able to pick it up and drop it off to her.”

Thurston signing copies of her book, The Kindness Journal

The woman had escaped an awful domestic situation and she and her children had been homeless for a while too. “It broke my heart,” says Thurston. She emailed people she knew and pooled together some secondhand bits for the woman. Then she drove it all to her.

“When she opened the door, she just burst into tears,” says Thurston.  “She couldn’t believe that someone who didn’t know her – and all these people who had donated things – would be willing to help.”

The ripple effect 

Researchers have discovered that kindness is contagious: a single act of altruism can spread up to three degrees of separation. So being kind to one person can, in theory, positively affect up to 125 people.

On the drive home, Thurston felt great. Her act of kindness meant her brain had released dopamine, a rewarding ‘helper’s high’.

“I knew I wanted to keep doing more to help,” she says. The next day, she set up a Facebook page called 52 Lives, with the aim of helping one person a week. She explained the concept to her friends and family and asked if they knew of anyone who needed help.

“When I started it, it was just something I did around looking after my kids,” says Thurston. But after appearing on the TV series Surprise Surprise with Holly Willoughby, those ripples of kindness became waves.

Research suggests being kind to one person can positively affect up to 125 people. Image: Remi Walle

52 Lives is now a fully fledged charity with more than 70,000 followers on Facebook. They’ve shown kindness to more than 300 people, in the form of donations, cards, messages, gifts from a wishlist. One hundred per cent of donations go directly to those in need and all the running costs are covered by corporate sponsorship.

Nine in 10 of the people who receive help have been put forward by social workers, teachers and health visitors. Charities will put forward nominations too – often people they themselves are unable to help.

“One of the things I love about what we do is that our criteria is deliberately, incredibly broad,” Thurston says. “We don’t care how old you are or whatever it is that you need. We just help people who are in need of kindness.”

When the pandemic hit last year, the team provided bedding, toys and books for the 18 new families who had moved into a women’s refuge in Wales. They helped women fleeing domestic violence. They bought 100 uniforms for children going back to school.

Thurston collecting an award for her work

And when Thurston won an award from Clarins for her charity work, she used the £30,000 prize money to start the School of Kindness, a free workshop taught in schools that teaches kids about the importance of altruism.

All of this sounds very positive, both for the givers and receivers, but life can be complex. We don’t always know what’s going on in people’s lives, particularly if we’re extending kindness to strangers.

“What I find challenging sometimes is dealing with people who aren’t being very nice or are being rude,” Thurston says. “They’re the people who normally need kindness the most and responding back with unkindness is only going to make the world worse.”

We don’t care how old you are or whatever it is that you need. We just help people who are in need of kindness

Starting 52 Lives has made Thurston learn to be more empathetic and not judge people. “If people are in bad states of mind themselves, they do take it out on the people around them,” she says. “I don’t know if we can prevent that from happening – it’s just human behaviour – but what we can do is rectify things. If I am rude to somebody, I will go back and apologise. I also try to let my children see me do that.”

She’s also had to learn how to deal with sad and challenging situations. To maintain good mental health, Thurston keeps a gratitude journal and tries to stay present in whatever she is doing. She often takes a step back from her work too, and leans on her family for support.

“My husband makes me go for walks, especially if I’m busy or cranky, because he says that’s where I need it the most,” Thurston says. “He’s been through a lot of illness and difficulties in his life and he’s really, really great at looking after his wellbeing, and he’s made me much better at it.”

Know someone in need of kindness? Nominate them here

But with Thurston most often at the giving end, it does beg the question: what’s the kindest thing a stranger has done for her?

She pauses. “This sounds really tiny…” She explains how during the first lockdown, when the supermarkets had seemingly sold out of everything, she’d run out of food at home. So, she put a message on her community WhatsApp group asking if anybody had anything to spare.

“Somebody who I didn’t even know left four tins of chopped tomatoes on my doorstep,” Thurston says. “That really meant a lot.” And there are those ripples again.

Image: Getty Images/Kupicoo

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