I love my Spotlight on Service Series because it highlights what brings out the best in us. In this post, I am thrilled to feature Michael Ray and Smile Project Louisville, and the story about how a small act of kindness turned into a Social Media sensation that has spread joy to countless people.
Michael Ray is a man on a mission to share smiles across his city, and now across the nation. Michael’s daughter, Maddie, is often by his side, sharing smiles and spreading happiness one smile at a time through Smile Project Louisville.
Maddie has Down syndrome, and is non-verbal. As a parent of a child with special needs myself, I understand how hearing the words “I Love You” are taken for granted by families with typical children. Michael came to understand that Maddie was able to share her love through her smile, and that’s a founding idea he has run with by initiating The Smile Project Louisville.
When I reached out to Michael to learn more about the Smile Project Louisville, we immediately sparked a connection over shared experiences as parents of children with special needs, and his natural gift for connecting and building relationships with people. Michael’s a warm and confident speaker who approaches strangers with ease and can make them feel like old friends in an instant.
What is Smile Project Louisville?
To understand the evolution of The Smile Project Louisville, we need to go back to its beginnings. Michael explains it’s inception and how he got on the road to creating a foundation that touches and inspires so many people today.
“It took life to put me in a place that was dark enough that it had to intersect with something else so I could really understand the significance and importance of my mission.
In early 2018 when I was trying to manage the emotions attached to the failure of a job that wasn’t working out, I went to get lunch at a Wendy’s— and it was the interaction with the girl at the drive-thru window that gave me a moment I still can’t really explain. I was so overcome, and had to pull over and was compelled to get out of the car and go say thank you to her.
We didn’t talk for more than 30 seconds and as another car was coming I pulled out my phone and I said, I don’t know why but iIfeel like I need to do this, and I asked to take a picture with her. As a couple of days passed, I found myself in another social setting and it happened to be a 14 year old boy with Down syndrome at the gym at the Y. And we started talking, and I asked to take another picture. A few days later it was at the vitamin shop and I asked the guy at the vitamin shop to take a picture with me. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing, so I took a self assessment...
The simplicity of these short interactions made me forget about the difficult things for a moment. I continued with it, and as it evolved over the first month, it was like I could feel it and I knew when I was in the right place at the right time. After I had 10-12 pictures, I thought to myself, It’s kind of like a smile project”
Spreading the Love
Michael started sharing his project on Facebook, and it started to become more purposeful. The project started evolving through the conversations he was having with people.
“These could be two-minute long conversations and I found myself asking them in the moment to tell me something amazing about themselves. Then I got to share a little bit more about these people. Not only that we met and had a friendly conversation, but now we are celebrating what really makes each other unique, and what makes them happy“
Getting people to start talking about themselves made him feel good. Most people think about projects as a start and end. But at the time Michael didn’t know if it would be two weeks, two months, or two years, but he decided to name it the Smile Project Louisville. He didn’t know where it was going yet, but unexpectedly, it started to grow and take off with a life of its own.
It started resonating with people on Facebook at the same time Michael was driving for Lyft and Uber, putting him in the position to meet and connect with all kinds of people. Realizing that asking people to share there lives was bringing the smiles, he wondered what would happen if his team shared a random act of kindness to make the people he connected with smile too. He wanted to give people a WOW moment. So they started including monetary donations.
“I got a $50 gift card from Kroger and there was a group of about 5 of us, still not sure what we were doing that day and we started walking the aisles. Never thinking about being conflicted. We saw two ladies who looked like single moms who we wanted to help. We walked out and did it and videoed it and it was amazing. I shared it on Facebook and it really resonated. It felt like a drug. So now we were thinking about the next week and the next person.”
Growing the Smile Project larger than Louisville
Michael and his team started brainstorming how to help people where they were and where they really needed it. People started reaching out and sharing stories about people they wanted to help. That part of the equation became about 80-90% of what they still do now. Smile Project Louisville gets regular stories about people in need and in October of 2019 the media started hearing about the story. And people urged Michael to start sharing it on LinkedIn to spread the word about his story.
More than just the local smile guy, he now has a national footprint. LinkedIn dramatically expanded the number of people he was able to reach and Michael found natural ways to nurture those new relationships and connections.
“For the level of following I have- my content blows it out of the water compared to people who have 30 times the following because its shareable content. I have 30,000 followers and the people who I engage with are people who I am building real relationships with. When I put content out there, I am putting myself in there to be part of the conversation. Conversations have turned into relationships and turned into friendships. That helps get my message out there. Authentic connections are what it’s all about.“
I wanted to show a way to make a difference. Showing people what it feels like and how you can connect and there is so much we can have in life and my videos show how.
What’s next for Smile Project Louisville?
Like many other non-profits nationwide, sustainability is the main issue. Michael explains, ”Most of the first two years I had side things to help me to do this. There are things I want to do but I’m not sure what that looks like. It will never go away but it may evolve depending on how much we can sustain things. Covid kept us from being able to speak, to fundraise, and to do the things we would normally use to get this work done.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Smile Project Louisville follow Michael Ray and his mission on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. And keep up to date on the evolution of this amazing organization.