When Tyra Damm lost her husband to brain cancer in 2009 after 15 years of marriage, her heart broke thousands of times for herself and her kids, who were 4 and 8. In the blur of that first year, one thing stood out: his birthday.
His birthday, it turned out, was the hardest day of all, full of unbelievable grief. Almost out of desperation, she hatched an idea for the next birthday.
The following year, Damm decided to use Steve's birthday to help other people, maybe even show the kids the world can be good. On his birthday, Nov. 4, she asked friends in her Texas community to perform random acts of kindness in his honor, such as giving flowers to an elderly person, donating food to a local pantry or taking cookies to a firehouse. People responded with hundreds of acts, and the hashtag #dammkind was born.
"Selfishly, it helps us feel better," said Damm, 45, a middle school teacher and parenting columnist at the Dallas Morning News. "It makes me feel better on the day rather than yet another day to remember our loss."
In the five years since, #dammkind has expanded, moving people she has never met to perform acts of kindness. Nov. 4 is now a day on which her email inbox and social media feeds are filled with photos and descriptions of small and large acts of kindness performed in Steve Damm's name.
"It is my favorite day of the year," she said.
Each year, she asks that people collectively perform the number of acts of kindness that matches what would be her late husband's age, but there are always far more.
A few years ago on his birthday, Damm estimated people sent her notes about 400 random acts of kindness they performed. This past weekend, she asked for 49 (he would have turned 49 years old), but the number so far is about twice that. She's still getting emails detailing more kind acts.
Damm documents many of the kind acts on her blog, and has a card available for people to download and give away as they perform their act of kindness, which many people do. It says, in part, "This gift is given in memory of Steve Damm. His life was cut short by brain cancer but his legacy continues. . . . He loved kindness and he loved life. I'm happy to share some of that life with you."
Friends in and near their town of Frisco have posted acts of kindness that include buying coffee or ice cream for a person in line next to them, leaving a note of gratitude and a large tip for a waitress, baking cookies for Meals on Wheels and giving a "hefty gas card to an unsuspecting person getting gas." One person took a friend whose husband was recently diagnosed with cancer out for a pedicure. Damm's network has gone way beyond Texas, including friends across the country and a former babysitter of theirs who now lives in Paris.
On the blog, Jessi Crumb, Tyra Damm's half sister, from Mountain View, Arkansas, wrote that she "delivered thirty-five pounds of homegrown sausage and two butchered pigs to several Arkadelphia families with various blends of biological, adopted, and fostered kiddos. A week-long endeavor; it was physically and emotionally exhausting. But as I've sat here picking at my banged-up knuckles, I've smiled and thought of Steve. Realizing that today is his day, it all feels perfect."
This year, among other acts, Damm donated to friends who lost their house in a fire. Her kids bought ice cream for friends, and while in line, they paid for the family behind them, as well.
Her kids, Cooper, 16, and Katie, 12, love being a part of it, too, she said. Some years they bake for neighbors or give out pencils to classmates. They always give their teachers a small gift.
Damm said she vividly remembers the first birthday without Steve, in 2010, when he would have turned 42. It was full of anguish for her and her children.
"It was such a sad day because we were celebrating a birthday for someone who isn't there," she said. "As his birthday approached for 43, I was thinking, 'That didn't go that well last year. How can I help my kids through it, and me through it?' "
Damm said #dammkind has helped her to show her kids more about their father's values, beyond the stories they've heard.
"As the only remaining parent, I feel responsible for helping the kids understand who their dad was and his character," she said. "They don't have the same memories I do. It was a way for them to see what was important to Steve is still important to us."
In 2007, two years after Katie was born, Steve, a health-conscious marathoner, starting having difficulty swallowing liquids. He came down with monster headaches and suddenly developed slightly slurred speech. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive tumor in his brain.
He began chemotherapy while still working as an administrator for a medical clinic for underprivileged children, a job his wife described as his "calling."
When he died in 2009, Damm said, her community came together in an astonishing way to help her family with rides, meals, baby-sitting and plenty of other support. Now, she's able to give some back by encouraging acts of kindness.
And she hopes that doing so helps her children through their maturing stages of grief.
"My hope is that it has been a touchstone for them, that their grief is soothed or comforted by the goodness of his life and not the hard reality of his death," she said. "I hope this helps keep the goodness of his life around."