In 2006 Cami Walker, 33, and her husband, Mark, had barely unpacked from their honeymoon in Mexico when Cami woke up one morning to discover that her hands were weak, tingly, and painful. Within days she lost vision in her right eye. Following a battery of tests doctors discovered the cause—multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic and progressive disease of the central nervous system.
For two years Cami, an out-of-work creative director, struggled with the symptoms of MS. It was difficult to walk, work, or take pleasure in the simple comforts of home and family. To dull the pain and fight fatigue and insomnia Cami began popping prescription drugs for pain and anxiety—so many that they had to be tracked with a spreadsheet. She began to slip into a fog of depression and self-pity.
Then something happened that changed her life.
Cami had a very good friend whom she looked up to. During a phone call her mentor told her frankly that she was in a bad place. She said Cami needed to stop dwelling on herself if she was ever going to heal. Her prescription for Cami was to give 29 gifts in 29 days and to write about the experience.
Cami not only rose to her friend’s giving challenge, but she also started a self-help movement that has mobilized tens of thousands of individuals across the globe. Motivated by her own positive experiences, Cami founded 29gifts.org, a Facebook-like website in which people share personal stories of giving and receiving while making new friends. Members join together to raise money for individuals in need as well as to contribute to organizations ranging from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to Charity Water (a group that provides clean water to villages in Africa).
Cami’s foray into philanthropy began inauspiciously. At first she dismissed her friend’s suggestion as “silly.” “I didn’t understand how giving to others was going to help me,” she says. “Most days, I could not get out of bed and felt I had nothing to offer the world.”
But as her friend explained, making the conscious and daily choice to give things away was all about shifting Cami’s focus away from herself. That would create a void into which, perhaps, something positive might enter.
What kinds of gifts? She asked.
Not to worry, her friend answered. Gifts didn’t have to be material things. A smile, warm handshake, or praise would do. The key was to be mindful about it—which is to say, not to do what sales clerks do when they say blankly, “Have a nice day!” For good things to happen, Cami would have to really mean it.
Cami’s first gift was a supportive phone call to a friend who also was struggling with MS. That might have been the hardest because it meant reopening the hardened scab of her own pain so she could be sensitive to the sufferings of others.
After that she was on a roll. For the next 28 days Cami handed out flowers to people on the street, stuffed quarters into a friend’s parking meter, and shared chocolate cake with her husband. She even (gasp!) gave up control of the TV remote for an entire evening. And as her spiritual advisor suggested, Cami chronicled every gift in her journal.
Good things started to happen to Cami very quickly. She could feel her energy coming back. The symptoms of MS were still there, but she was better able to cope. After just two weeks Cami was less reliant on the cane she’d been using. She was taking fewer pain pills. And brain scans showed that the disease had at least temporarily stopped getting worse.
Then, out of the blue, a philanthropic agency in San Francisco hired her to do some consulting work. She rejoiced in being busy again. “I started to wake up each morning feeling positive and excited, wondering what opportunities to give might come my way instead of wondering where I would hurt or what might go wrong,” says Cami. “That was a huge change.”
As she got more fluent with giving she found that receiving gifts from others became easier. She was able to accept even simple things such as a ride to and from the doctor’s office with gratitude instead of guilt or shame. “I now try to give and receive more consciously,” she says.
Halfway through the 29 days Cami began to post her giving stories online, which is how her website got started. She invited others to join her challenge to give. Within weeks more than 200 friends and acquaintances signed up and agreed to the challenge. Today more than 16,000 people in 43 countries have joined the site. Membership is free, but new members must pledge to give 29 gifts in 29 days and to write, share artwork, or blog about the experience on the site. Cami hopes to inspire 29,000 people to sign up.
Cami turned her story into a book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, which has sold more than 60,000 copies and earned her appearances on The Today Show and other places. Today she’s busy writing her second book, a collection of stories from the website. She travels often, speaking to groups about 29 Gifts and the lessons she’s learned.
Through it all the MS symptoms are there in the background. When they flared up recently, Cami needed to be hospitalized for a brief period. It’s not easy, she says, “but being of service to others brings me a sense of balance and peace in the world, no matter what’s going on in my life.”
To learn more about 29 Gifts, visit 29gifts.org.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now