Living through the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way many people see their place in the world.
Before 2020, Zachery Dereniowski of Ontario, Canada was studying medicine at the University of Sydney in Australia. After going through a break up, having knee surgery, and feeling overwhelmed by his studies and trapped by COVID, he fell into a deep depression.
Zachery says he felt incredibly alone during this time, so he decided to do something out of the ordinary to normalize the mental health issues many people have but never talk about. Enlisting the help of videographer friend Patrick Glaz, Zachery hit the streets of Sydney to make a video about showing kindness and empathy for the silent struggles many people face each day.
“I started this account not to have a platform, but because I was depressed,” Zachery explained. “I created one video hoping it would connect with someone else, and it just snowballed to where we are right now… Really, I thought I would get 50 to 100 views and maybe one message. That’s all I was aiming for.”
In his first video, Zachery stood in a public space, blindfolded, as he held a sign that read “If you have anxiety or depression, hug me.”
Incredibly, total strangers did just that, shyly approaching Zachery and sharing an emotional hug. The compassionate way he cared for each individual struck a chord online. The video was viewed more than 26 million times and, before Zachery knew it, he had garnered over 1.3 million followers on Instagram alone!
Encouraged, Zachery and Patrick hit the streets to conduct their social experiments in kindness even more frequently. In addition to the sign-wearing sessions, he also approaches strangers to ask them for a small favor, like borrowing a few dollars or a cell phone charger. The first person to help him gets “blessed” with a cash reward of $500 or more.
“I’m trying to grasp the human connection through storytelling, being vulnerable, and showing social proof that people are not alone,” Zachery said.
For him, the fact that his videos are never scripted and happen organically is the best part of making them.
“That’s the beauty of it. You never know how it might turn out,” he said. “I just enjoy that — the humanistic aspect, the unknown.”
It’s incredibly beautiful and satisfying to see these scenes play out. The people who agree to help Zachery are always so grateful. Often, they share a bit about their lives that makes it clear how much they themselves needed help but would never think to ask a stranger for it.
Creating these videos is time consuming. Since his following has taken off beyond his wildest dreams, Zachery recently quit med school to devote all of his energy to helping and motivating others.
“I’m very grateful for this, and hope to use my platform for good,” he said.
There’s already evidence that this method is working — recently, he set up a GoFundMe to help a panhandler in one of his videos and wound up earning the man $2,000 in donations.
In one of our favorite videos, Zachery approached a struggling vendor who was selling dreamcatchers in a market. She said it takes her an entire day to make just one dreamcatcher which she hopes to sell for $20. When Zachery offered to buy her entire stock, her eyes bulged in shock and gratitude. But the best part is when Zachery paid her… and then took just one item so she could sell the rest to others. Just look at her face!
“There are good people in the world,” Zachery said. “There are so many willing to give, anonymously, to strangers they’ll never know. It still blows my mind.”
Honestly, we’re blown away by what an incredible impact Zachery is making on strangers around the world, and we can’t thank him enough!
Share this story to spread the word about Zachery’s amazing kindness project and to wish him well on his new venture.
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