It began in the simplest way. Over lunch with girlfriends, Debbie Tenzer listened as they argued over the state of the world – war, crime, schools in Los Angeles – and how they felt helpless to change anything.
Ms. Tenzer found herself resisting that view – and began to think what she could do.
"OK, I can't fix needy schools, but I could give them my children's old schoolbooks," the mother of three recalls telling herself. "I can't end the war, but I can send a phone card so a soldier can call home and feel comforted. I decided then I'd find a way to do one nice thing for someone every week."
Tenzer, a marketing professional, started with small gestures of kindness on Mondays, her own most difficult day. Friends soon suggested she post these activities on a website, and DoOneNiceThing.com was born.
Now she communicates with "nice-oholics" in 53 countries – people inspired by the website to pour tons of school supplies into Afghanistan, meet the needs of students fleeing hurricane Katrina in Mississippi, send sweaters to help people endure the bitter winter winds in Iraq, and so on.
The site set up in 2005 has grown gradually by word of mouth, and it's taking over her time.
"I love it – it's my rocket fuel!" she says in a phone interview.
Her Monday gestures buoyed her and others so much that she stayed with that plan, posting a new project idea each week, with many suggestions coming from a growing Web membership.
"I don't believe there is any small nice thing," she adds. "Some things are less labor intensive than others, but you never know the impact you can have."
After Katrina devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, Tenzer brought some unusual help to students at Jefferson Middle School in Columbia, Miss. The school itself survived the storm, but homes and trees in the community were severely damaged. Meanwhile, families who had lost everything poured into Columbia from New Orleans and the coast.
What did the assistant principal ask for? Belts.
"Who ever thinks about belts?" Tenzer asks. "But if you're 12 and need a string to hold up your pants, a belt is something to get excited about!"
That wasn't all, of course. People from across the country also sent school supplies and backpacks.
"Debbie and DoOneNiceThing were just a ray of sunshine in the storm," says assistant principal Angie Burkett. "They met needs we couldn't meet at the time ... and continued to help for a couple years."
Another initiative that has galvanized ongoing support began in 2006 with an e-mail from a soldier deployed in Afghanistan. Maj. Walter Woodring told of schools being rebuilt and increased safety in western Afghanistan, but of students not having any supplies, not even pencils.
People were urged to send a large ziplock bag containing a notebook, pen, two pencils, a pencil sharpener, a healthy snack, and a small toy. Tenzer managed to get on Fox TV to talk about it. That helped open the floodgates.
"The project is still going, and people have sent 70 tons of school supplies so far," she says.
Maj. Sean Gustafson of the Minnesota National Guard – stationed near Herat from June 2006 to June 2007 and charged with training members of the Afghan Army and police – soon took on responsibility as Major Woodring's tour ended.
"There were about 350,000 school kids in the Herat sector," he says in a phone interview from Minneapolis. "They went to school six days a week even though they had nothing. Some sat outside on the dusty ground."
When supplies started arriving, the soldiers made three or four school visits per week to deliver a package to each child. "The response was always phenomenal, they were very grateful," he says.
Yet it wasn't wholly altruistic on the part of the soldiers involved, Major Gustafson hastens to add. These families had been told that Westerners wanted to convert or eradicate them. This kind of help affected their perspectives.
"We knew that happy people don't join the Taliban or become suicide bombers," Gustafson says. "The Koran is just as much against suicide bombing as Judaism or Christianity."
He even told an Afghan officer that Tenzer was Jewish and was spurring all this with no strings attached. "It kind of blew him away," he says.
DoOneNiceThing.com in fact ties directly into Tenzer's faith. As a child, she was taught in synagogue that if you do an act of goodness, you are helping God.
"I feel obligated to try to make the world a better place. In Judaism we call it Tikkun Olam, 'repairing the world,' " she explains. "We don't have to finish the job, but we have to get in the game."
She's thrilled to be able to help other people get in the game as well. She encourages those who have been helped to do a nice thing for others. The students at Jefferson Middle School sent hundreds of get-well cards to Tenzer to be distributed to children who were hospitalized.
"It helped them reach out to others when they saw how complete strangers came to our aid," Ms. Burkett says. "That builds up your faith in human nature, that people at their core are just good, caring folks."
Beyond the weekly projects, the website honors other individuals doing nice things on their own, whether big or small. For example, there's the Hollywood writer who vacationed in Tanzania and ended up creating a nonprofit group that built a home, school, and self-sustaining farm for abandoned children he met there.
Sharing these stories gives other people hope, Tenzer says. "The world is an imperfect place, and there's a lot to do and we can do."