Telling a secret can be transformative; it can change our relationship with people we know, and even those we will never meet. More than once I have watched strangers inspired by a shared secret self-organize into purposeful communities of kindness.
One of those stories began in 2007 when I pulled a postcard from my mailbox made from a photograph of smiling friends. The words taped to the photo read, “I found your camera at Lollapalooza this summer. I finally got the pictures developed and I’d love to give them to you”.
I shared the secret on the PostSecret Blog hoping someone would recognize one of the young people at the table and we could return all the photos to the group. Messages poured in that week from the PostSecret Community but no one was able to identify anyone in the picture. However, one of the messages came from a Canadian student, Mathew Preprost, who was inspired to do more.
Believing that everyday people can sometimes make a worldwide impact on the web with a good idea and determination, Mathew designed and created a website that would function as a lost and found for cameras. He called it, I Found Your Camera and when I helped him spread the word we were both surprised by how many lost cameras there were in the world and how many people wanted to help return them.
A 21-year-old vacationing student lost his camera at Union Station in Chicago. He thought it was long gone when a friend of his girlfriend saw the couple smiling together on the, I Found Your Camera website. “She went crazy when she randomly stumbled upon our picture at Wrigley Field.” He said.
Dozens, then hundreds of cameras were mailed to Mathew’s Winnipeg address. When they arrived he would post some of the photographs from each camera to his website and millions of people visited virtually to see if they could identify anyone in the pictures so they could be contacted. “It was exciting for me to see strangers helping strangers return lost cameras to the people who were sometimes desperately searching for them,” Mathew told me.
The owner of this camera (in yellow) left it behind in Santa Cruz (not far from the background pictured) on a long bike ride . A month later she was surprised and relieved to find herself on I Found Your Camera. She contacted Mathew and in two weeks she had all the photos from her California journey.
Mathew was being interviewed by USA Today, the CBC, and other national news services. One of the stories he liked telling was about the journey of George Metz’s camera. To get George’s Mardi Gras pictures back to him in Pennsylvania, Mathew coordinated an international effort between good samaritans in four cities, three countries and two continents. As the success stories spread more and more cameras began arriving in his mailbox.
Wedding pictures, photos from family reunions, parties, and graduations all found their way back to those who had lost them – over 1,000 in all – and the thankful emails Mathew received revealed heartfelt gratitude.
“Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, my son’s birth was on that camera and he turns 4 next week.”
I have traveled to Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Canada, England, Australia and throughout the US sharing the heartening story of how a single secret sparked the imagination of one student who united people around the world to help others they will never meet.
Every time I told the story I shared the original picture of happy people sitting around a table that started it all, always hoping that one day I would be able to complete the story. Finally, it happened.
Here is a picture of the young woman from the table whose lost camera inspired so many other stories of kindness before returning home itself. She asked me to pass along her thanks to the community for her lost, then found collection of, “slightly out-of-focus memories of a lifetime”.
And here is a picture of Mathew along with a quote he told a USA Today reporter.