Hillary Sadlon spent six months preparing for her most recent birthday.
The Seton Hall University senior was not planning a massive party. Instead, Sadlon was getting set to donate blood, deliver supplies to an animal shelter, load an elderly couple's car with groceries and help drivers pay their expressway tolls.
These good deeds represented only a fraction of what she dubbed "Hillary's 22 Random Acts of Kindness."
This past July, to coincide with her 22nd birthday, the nursing student embarked — with her boyfriend Evan Reed and best friend Meghan Cox — on a two-state, five-city, 10-hour goodwill tour. Sadlon's aim with her "Random Acts of Kindness" adventure: bringing joy to others on a day we typically reserve for ourselves.
"I truly believe you have two hands, one to help yourself and one to help others," said Sadlon, who carried out the acts in Bethlehem, Pa., her hometown of Belvidere, N.J. and the nearby Jersey locales of Hampton, Phillipsburg and Washington.
"When we were done, we were in the best mood you could ever imagine. And that's what I wanted for my birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be a happy day. That's what I was. Making someone else smile makes you want to smile."
Sadlon first gleaned inspiration in winter 2012 when she saw an article on Pinterest about a woman who performed similarly kind acts on her 28th birthday. She immediately went to work compiling a list of her own to be completed on July 23rd, the day she was set to turn 22.
Among the most significant acts she carried out during her birthday do-gooding: donating blood at Bethlehem's Miller-Keystone Blood Center. The center was so inspired by her act that staffers there featured her in a brief video interview.
"This goes back to me being a nursing major," she said. "I know the importance of the healthcare aspect. One of their problems is getting the younger generation to donate blood. Out of all the people able to donate, only 5% actually do. So I was very happy to do this for them."
As the day progressed, Sadlon was also happy to pass along water, water ice, ice cream, brownies, flowers, gift cards and inspirational greeting cards to a range of individuals including neighbors, bank tellers, gas station attendants, her mailman and her mother.
She also delivered donuts to a local police station. She brought balloons to special needs children.
And she donated paper towels, laundry detergent, hand soap, bleach, dog food, cat food, bird food, fish food and rabbit bedding to the nonprofit shelter Common Sense for Animals. Her animal aid was personally fulfilling, but one of her favorite moments of the day involved pure human interaction.
"My boyfriend and I went up to an elderly couple at Walmart and asked to load their groceries into their car," she said. "When I explained who I was and what I was doing, they just kept telling me 'May the Lord bless you. There needs to be more kindness in this world. You're so inspiring.' They actually wanted a picture of me and Evan. They're from Florida. I liked that we could spread the kindness to them and they could go back and talk about what happened when they were in New Jersey."
The Florida couple's response mirrored those of many others Sadlon came across.
"When we did the different acts, it was so heartwarming," she said. "I hate to say it, but the way society is today it's kind of hard to approach a stranger and have them accept your kindness. There was an apprehensiveness in the beginning. But every time I approached someone and explained who I was and what I was doing, everyone accepted our kindness. There wasn't one person who turned us down or was confused."
Sadlon's day ended with a surprise for her grandmother.
In the late afternoon, she stopped by her grandmother's home unannounced with Cox and Reed.
"I love my nana," Sadlon said. "She is full-blown Italian. Whenever you come, she's like 'How long are you staying? Can I feed you?' This time I said, 'Nana, I'm sorry we have to pass on the food, but this is what we want to do for you.'"
The trio proceeded to weed her front yard.
"She's my everything. She's my only grandparent I've had for a while. She's very near and dear to my heart. So to be able to do something for her was really meaningful for me."
Ultimately, the yard work was one of the final entries on a list full of meaning — one she hopes inspires others to create lists of their own.
According to Sadlon, "It means so much when people come to me and say 'I'm going to have my kids do this.' ... I want to get it out there because the more people who see it, it hits everyone a little differently and people go about it in their own way. Hopefully, in the end, it's kind of cliché, but it can maybe make the world a better place."