Smile Project Louisville Founder Talks Origins of His Growing Endeavor

Writer / Carrie Vittitoe
Photography Provided

Smile Project LouisvilleThere are times in life when it feels difficult to smile. Maybe you have experienced a death in the family, or the loss of a job or a friendship. Maybe youve felt overwhelmed by a career or school coursework. Maybe you slept poorly and had a long day of meetings or travel. Michael Ray, founder of Smile Project Louisville, knows from his own experience that helping others find a reason to smile is one of the most powerful and transformational acts a person and an organization can do. 

Unlike the birth of a human, the birth of a movement or organization doesnt necessarily have an official timestamp. Something happens and ideas marinate, sometimes for months or even years. Ray had a defining moment in February of 2018 with someone at a Wendys drive-through window. 

This particular day was a bad one. Ray had long worked in the financial services and mortgage industry, but knew he was going to lose his job. As a dad of four children with all kinds of responsibilities, this felt really heavy. All I wanted in the moment was some chili from Wendys,” he says. I laugh about it now.” He drove to Wendys to satisfy that urge, and had an interaction with an employee working the drive-through who made him smile. I felt the energy,” he says. “I felt alive. I felt so uplifted.” He took a photo with this stranger and posted it to social media. 

What Ray knew, in ways that a lot of people dont, is how meaningful a smile alone can be to change a persons mood or even the trajectory of their day. His 22-year-old daughter Maddie has Down syndrome and is mostly nonverbal. He has never heard her say I love you,” but he has felt her love through her smiles. Between his relationship with Maddie and his encounter at the Wendys, Ray began to shape ideas and plans in his head. 

It was at this point that he became intentional about making people all over the city of Louisville smile. I felt in these moments with these strangers a sense of love, a sense of joy,” he says. “Pictures with people evolved into conversations.” He began asking people about what was good in their lives, posting these conversations on social media, and receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. 

Smile Project Louisville

After about 18 months of pictures and videos of conversations, Ray began to wonder what impact he could have if he did a random act of kindness to make another person smile. In August of 2019 he went to the Kroger at Broadway and 26th Street, met a single mom and handed her $50. He continued to do these random acts of kindness each week into the fall months. 

As the popularity of Rays posts grew, people in the community began letting him know of individuals they knew who needed a smile in their lives. The first such person who reached out to Ray told him about an elementary school teacher in Louisvilles south end with Stage III colon cancer. Even though she was battling for her life, she was still coming in every day and having this positive force on teachers and students,” Ray says. He visited her school to give joy back to her. 

Ray knows there are hardships in life and has experienced them himself. He lost a son. He did lose his mortgage industry job in 2018. He lost his home and his marriage fell apart. I wound up as a 43-year-old guy living with his parents, when at one point in time I really thought I was being driven by material things,” he says. “I looked back on my life going, ‘God, I wish I could have found that place of happiness even though the circumstances were awful.’” 

COVID-19 had an impact on Smile Project Louisville because part of what Ray has always done is be in peoples space.” He would regularly hug people or put his arms around them if they cried. He had to rethink making people smile and interacting with them due to the virus. Soon after COVID-19 began to sicken people locally, he says, I bought 50 balloons and went behind Norton Brownsboro Hospital. I tied balloons on doctorsand nursescars, and left inspirational messages for people.”

Smile Project LouisvilleHe had to be creative, and literally bought a 10’ pole from a home improvement store to pass balloons and gift cards to people. He covered himself in a plastic drop cloth so he could hug people. Even though COVID-19 seems to be leveling off a bit, Ray tries to be outside and 6’ or more away from people so he doesnt have to mask his smile.

Making people smile has, of course, brought Ray immense joy, but he also realized that for some people, their needs go way beyond what a smile and a $50 can bring them. Last Christmas, Smile Project Louisville raised a little over $2,000 to give to single mothers who work in the restaurant industry. Ray has traveled to Texas, California and Florida to spread the word about the endeavor and take it beyond Kentuckiana. He may at some point even visit schools to help inspire young people to make others smile in both large and small ways. His goals are to continue to help others in bigger and better ways, and to encourage the community to be part of it.

Ray has sometimes received comments asking why he takes photos and videos of his encounters to make others smile. Why doesnt he do his good works quietly, without fanfare? He refers to his encounter with a homeless man in NuLu that he posted on social media. Someone from England responded to the post offering to wire $100 to Smile Project Louisville, to give to this man. Someone from England watched the video and opened their heart,” he says. “Thats why we video – because it impacts and influences people to create change.”

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