Meet the Storyteller
Hey, I'm Melissa Brown
I started Smiles of Humanity originally back in 2015 as a happiness project. Climbing out of a phase of depression, I wanted to create joy in the world. However, shortly after collecting a few stories, it got pushed to the back burner because I got an opportunity to travel around the world for a year with Remote Year.
While on Remote Year, I stayed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a month. The first week I got there, I saw so much poverty as I walked around and it broke my heart every day. I dreaded the month ahead, but caught myself after the first week. I didn't want to be unhappy for an entire month of the year. So, I decided to learn more about the culture to understand why this city was the way it was.
After visiting the killing fields, prison camps, meeting a couple of the survivors from the Khmer Rouge, I went for a bike ride in the countryside. People out there lived off the land, sheltered by a metal sheet propped up against a tree, or some cloth serving as a roof. Others lived in wooden bungalow type huts. They grew their own crops, burned their trash, and rode old bicycles -- 3 to a seat. Everyone was so happy. The children all ran up to us smiling and waving "hello, hello!"
I stopped at a pig farm to get out of the rain. No one there spoke English, and I didn't speak Cambodian. So we sat there for about 10 minutes, unable to exchange any kinds of communication. A little girl was there, she was learning English, but was so shy that she avoided me. Until I pulled out my phone and added puppy ears to her reflection in my phone using Snapchat filters. She laughed and grabbed my arm. Instantly, seeing both of our smiles on my screen, we were connected. She then showed me her favorite piglet and her pet rooster. Aside from that, she didn't have much. No toys, they grew their own food...I was puzzled -- why didn't they resent me knowing I was a tourist enjoying luxuries like a bike tour through their home? My guide replied, "They might not have much, but they have their kindness and their culture, and they still want to share what they have."
It was in that moment that I realized my sympathy for them -- feeling bad for them -- was transformed to empathy. And it was catalyzed by the smiles of the people, sharing their joy with me. I was forever changed.
Once I finished my year around the world, I settled temporarily in Tampa, FL. Getting involved with a nonprofit called The Portico, there was an opportunity for Smiles of Humanity to have a positive impact in helping homeless people. But before I could carry out the project, I moved to Austin, and once again, it got put on the back burner.
In December 2018, I quit my job at a tech company that took up most of my time and energy. With more bandwidth and new perspective, I decided I was going to make Smiles of Humanity a thing in 2019. It kept calling me and whenever I talked about it, I could feel that I was on to something good.
Not knowing anything about the homeless landscape, I took the role of student and started meeting people who have worked with the homeless and the agencies in Austin for years. Quen graciously shared his time with me and told me all about the agencies. He recommended I get in touch with Mark at Sunrise. Mark shared in more detail what the Navigation Center is about and what efforts they're running to help the homeless. He invited me to speak to some of the homeless people who come by, which is where I met Davey. Davey will be the second story for Smiles of Humanity. Tim so kindly connected me with his friend Leo, who agreed to meet with me and gave me a fresh perspective on nonprofits. Megan connected me with Debbie, who loved the concept as someone who has experienced homelessness, and was willing to share her story as the first for Smiles of Humanity. Cameron connected me with Alan Graham, whom I very much look forward to meeting with.
Sharing, connection, and compassion generated all of this. And now, it's real.
Come to the Gallery launch on August 1, 2019. It's my birthday, and I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate than a room filled with joy and compassion.
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