A short history of the start of this simple social movement – by smile project founder and Let’s Laugh Chief Happiness Officer, Bron Roberts.
The Smile Project was born on Facebook on July 1, 2010, but our story does not begin there. It’s
the child of an idea formed in a moment of madness in January 2005 and the descendent of a
random gift passed between 2 strangers in a poorly lit hospital stairwell on September 21, 2003.
My first eureka ‘get them to smile’ moment arrived on a blistering hot January day in Perth,
Western Australia, when I was waiting, with my family, for the pedestrian lights to turn to walk
on the corner of King and Murray Streets. We were sharing a much needed holiday and making
our way to Science Museum. Without giving much thought to what I was about to do I turned to
a stranger standing nearby and asked “what would you do if I suddenly said g’day to you”.
Possibly surprised by what could be seen as a rather odd question, the stranger replied “I’d
probably say g’day back”. “Well then” I said “G’day!”. “G’day” replied the stranger. The
lights changed to walk, and we parted, smiling and wishing each other a wonderful day.
By the time my family and I were heading back to our hotel at days end the ‘Say G’day’ project
had been formulated, but its time had not yet arrived. How would the ‘Say G’day project’ ‘go
global’? How would it be marketed at all? Effective social networking was a thing of the
future. Face book, just 7 months old, was yet to reach its full potential, and personal networks
were few and far between. By holidays end the ‘Say G’day project’ was back packed away in
the secret zipper compartment of my favourite handbag with the yellow post it note smiley that
had brought it to life.
But, our real story begins 16 months earlier.
On September 21, 2003 my mother died. At 82 years of age, a widow for over a decade, the time
had come for her to join her beloved Colin in the world beyond.
I sat with her for most of her final hours. Nursing staff attended her on a regular basis, but,
armed with the knowledge that she was in her final stages of life, or rather, what they negatively
referred to as the final stages of death, their attitude was one of professional grief and try as I
might, conversation, and even eye contact, was non-existent.
At one point I asked about the possibility of getting something to eat. I was told, in a tone
befitting one who is talking to a naughty child, that meals were not provided for family, and that,
as my mother was clearly not eating, due to her terminal condition, meals would not be provided
to her room. Food I was told, should I feel the need to leave my mother at this tragic time, could
be bought from the hospital canteen 3 floors below.
With a heavy heart and an empty stomach I told my mother I would not be gone for long. The
walk to the canteen took an age and the canteen was more than full when I finally arrived. Did
all the staff really take their breaks at the same time? I looked around the crowded, noisy
cafeteria and longed for someone to make some sort, any sort, of contact with, but it seemed that
eye contact with strangers had been trained out of those who work in this particular ‘care’
organisation. Unable to find so much as an empty chair, let alone a table to sit at, I ate my
hospital food standing in a corner. At one point a woman in blue hospital scrubs bumped into
me. With what seemed the usual no eye contact communication she told the floor near my feet
that she hadn’t seen me. “No” I said quietly. “No one can see me. My mother is dying and, as
family and not staff, I’m just an inconvenience than must not be recognised”. I realised then
that I had become invisible.
Food eaten, eyes filled with tears, and heart filled with sadness, I chose to take the stairs up to
mother’s room. An elderly gentleman descended the stairs toward me between the 2nd and 3rd
floors. When he reached me he stopped, looked directly into my eyes, and said “You look like
you could use a smile”. He smiled, a gentle and caring smile, handed me a yellow ‘post it note’
and walked on. The post it note had a smile drawn on it, nothing more, just a simple curved line
that clearly made a smile. I turned to thank him but he was gone.
His smile brought just the hint of lightness to my being, and the hint of a smile to my face.
Suddenly I realised that in the 28 hours I’d been at the hospital, this crowded place that had made
me feel more alone than I have ever felt, he was the only person who had so much as looked me
in the eyes. In 28 hours, this stranger, this gentle man, was the only person who had actually
taken time to acknowledge my existence and connect with me. I put his smile in my jacket
3 hours later my mother was gone. I was told to leave her room while the staff did what ever
staff do when a patient dies. As I stood in the hall, tears streaming down my face, totally
invisible to passing staff, I fingered the smile in my pocket. I had often felt lonely, but at no time
before or after had I ever felt so deserted, so isolated, so utterly alone.
I took the smile from my pocket and looked at it, a single tear dropped onto the paper where any
eye would have been. I remembered the elderly gentleman, and realised that, if I kept his smile
with me, I might never be alone again. With this smile in my possession, where ever I went, the
memory of the gentle man in the stair well would travel with me.
The months that followed were the most difficult I had ever experienced. Attitudes of caring
become attitudes of distance. Death becomes the elephant in the room that no one dares mention.
Conversations go unfinished and important things remain unsaid.
With everything that goes with the loss of a life, that small yellow piece of paper gave me
energy. That simple smile became the thing I turned to when nothing else seemed to matter or
everything seemed too difficult.
Time, they say, heals all wounds. Wills were read, probate granted, property divided. 9 months
after her funeral my mother, her property, her life, was laid to rest. For safety’s sake I put the
now grubby, crumpled and tear stained ‘post it’ note it in a plastic zip lock bag and placed it in
the secret zippered part of my favourite hand bag. There it stayed until the afternoon when I
stood at the traffic lights on that hot day in Perth.
And so our story moves forward.
In May of 2010 I started a Social Inclusion Leadership Program being run by Uniting Care
Community Options. Invited to apply for the program by a friend, the brochure and preceding
interview highlighted what promised to be an exciting and educative experience, the culmination
of which was to be that all participants would design, develop and ultimately implement a
program designed to meet the needs of those who are isolated in our community.
Program weeks passed quickly, and the time to develop the project was looming large. I sat in
despair as the page in my brain where my project was to appear remained totally and
My problem with developing a program was that it could not relate to my business. My
business, which has been running for almost a decade, involves sharing, through humour and
laughter, basic and clinically proven skills for emotional resilience, teaching the fundamental
building blocks of health and well-being and helping others to help themselves. Based on my
passion for providing community organisations with the high quality services that normally only
corporations can afford, my business is founded on a true ‘profit for purpose’ formula. The fees
paid by my corporate clients allow me to present high quality programs for either free or for a
nominal fee to community clients. Every week I volunteer my time to speak with at least one,
often more, community groups about simple strategies for a happier life, and as one of
Australia’s first fully certified Laughter Leaders I run a popular weekly community Laughter
Club, now in its seventh year. I founded and administer the Global Laughter Network, a popular
social networking face book site, and every year, travel to the USA to update my skills and meet
with members of my ever expanding happiness network.
A childhood friend once told me that when the planets align fate will take you by the hand and
guide you to where you need to be, and that when the planets align, amazing things are possible.
I’m not sure about the astrological alignment but it was certainly fate that took me re-visit my
now discarded, one time favourite, old hand bag. It was fate that took me to open the secret
zippered compartment, and fate that re-united me with the crumpled, tear stained, yellow ‘post it’
note smiley and the memory of the gentle man on the stairs.
The leadership course included much discussion on the causes of social isolation; nationality,
language barriers, age, gender, violence, illness – both physical and mental. The list went on.
For most of the group the topic quickly turned to discrimination, or the rather more politically
correct, inclusion and exclusion. In all the discussion one word stuck in my mind: invisibility. I
didn’t voice the word, but it was as clear as if it had been said by the person sitting next to me.
To me, and, I had no doubt, to many others, social isolation means invisibility.
Personal experience had also taught me that social isolation is not an issue solely reserved for
those who might be house bound or lack the language or social skills to be an effective member
of their community. It effects even the busiest of people. A lack of social skills or the
combination of a demanding home life and full or even part time work can create social isolation
in even to the most socially well intentioned of people. This, combined with self esteem issues,
necessary or perceived financial considerations and limitations, or just a lack of time or energy,
effects the choices of those who are most at risk of social isolation, and not every one is able or
willing to join a group, attend a program, or sign up to something that means a commitment to a
regular, no matter how infrequent, program.
Even for those who do get out into society, it’s a sad fact that we are taught to ignore one
another, to avoid eye contact, to avoid connecting in any way with the ‘other’s’ who might
invade our day and steal our valuable time, and to distance ourselves from those who do not fit
into our particular world. We spend our time plugged into MP3 players, texting instead of talking
and social networking instead of connecting. To me at least, the major cause of social isolation
is the lack of social interaction and the feeling of invisibility.
Having said that, for those who feel the effects of social isolation, social networking can be a
saviour. The one saving grace during all the difficulties that followed my mother’s death, I was
raising a family, working part time, and dealing with all that comes when closing up a life that
has ended, was the internet. While social network sites were still a thing of the future, surfing
the net became my contact with the outside world, and many a late night was spent outside the
reality of my busy life, on-line. The one thing that kept repeating in my ‘what is my social
inclusion project going to be?’ mind, was a way to connect with those for whom traditional
community connection techniques was not appropriate. The invisible army that would prefer to
connect anonymously before making, what can for some, be a giant leap into traditional society.
7 years ago, just 3 hours elapsed between me receiving the gift of a smile and my mother dying.
It was just 3 hours between my second eureka moment, the moment when fate took me to revisit
the yellow post it note smile, and the launch of the Smile Project on Facebook. We all know the
saying ‘just do it’. That’s what I did. Just 3 short hours after the launch of the Smile Project
Facebook page, 15 people had clicked the ‘like’ button. 15 quickly became 30 and today,
October 27, the page boasts 560 members, and that number is increasing every day. We’ve been
promoted at the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, and in 6 locations around the planet,
celebrated 10.10.10 as ‘International Share Your Smile Day’. Highlights of the Melbourne
celebration can be found on You Tube in our ‘Share Your Smile Day – 10.10.10’ video.
The Smile Project might not be the type of project that the providers of the Social Isolation
Leadership Program envisaged, but, I have never been one to fit neatly inside the expected
square. Over the course of the leadership program the project leaders have told us to recognise
and use our individual skills and talents. As the carer of a parent for over 30 years, I know all
too well the meaning and feeling of social isolation. I know what it is to be invisible and I know
the difference something as simple as a smile can make. The Smile Project uses my particular
and unique skills and talents, my ability to inspire others to action and to share the excitement of
something so simple that could make such a difference to so many people.
The Smile Project might yet be a tiny grass roots social movement, but the thought that a smile
can change the day of people all over the world is starting to take hold.
Join us on face book - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Smile-Project/106745079376856 - and
help us in our mission to change the face of the planet to a smile and the attitude of the planet to
one of social inclusion. Our page is the one with the square yellow sticky smiley face!