By Suzanne Mooney

I knew Nichole was training for something the moment I saw the backpack she was wearing at Challenge Walk MS. It wasn’t the typical hydration pack you’d expect to see on a three-day, 50-mile walk—the kind where you stash a few snacks, an extra pair of socks, and maybe some blister care. No, this was a heavy-duty, I-am-going-on-a-long-journey kind of backpack. Intrigued, I introduced myself and asked Nichole about her pack, not knowing I was about to make a new friend and be incredibly inspired.

Nichole was wearing the backpack as part of her training for the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain she will embark on in May after more than a year of planning. When I heard this and looked at the healthy, fit, 40-something year old woman walking next to me, I was impressed. Minutes later, when she told me that just a few years earlier she had been unable to walk without a cane after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I had to pick my jaw up off the sidewalk. As I’ve gotten to know Nichole, I’ve learned that the strength, courage, and optimism I witnessed during our first conversation are fundamental to how she lives her life.

Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, Nichole has raised money for Bike MS, Hike MS, Walk MS, Climb MS, Finish MS, and Challenge Walk MS, all to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Most recently, on March 3, she climbed 66 flights of stairs at Rockefeller Center as part of Climb to the Top NYC. Her inspiration to raise money for the MS Society by walking the Camino de Santiago came shortly after her diagnosis. It will be her largest fundraising effort to date—her goal is $50,000.

“I saw the movie The Way on Netflix, and was enthralled,” Nichole said. “I couldn’t physically walk it at the time, but the idea had been planted.” (The Way is a Spanish film starring Martin Sheen and tells the story of a father who walks the Camino de Santiago after the death of his son.) Before leading her to the Camino, The Way first led her to Challenge Walk.

“I said, ‘I can’t walk 500 miles yet, but I’m going to try this 50-mile thing.’ And then I did it…six times.” Nichole’s first Challenge Walk was in 2013. She was cane-dependent in October and the walk was in March. “I decided to just go and see what I could do,” Nichole said. “I would have been happy if I walked one mile…I walked the whole thing.”

Before she began training for the Camino de Santiago, Nichole fundraised primarily by asking her family and friends for support. But her fundraising efforts took an interesting turn when she read about The Kindness Rocks Project™, a movement encouraging people to paint inspiring messages on rocks, and then leave those rocks for others to find.

“It’s something people do to cheer up other people,” Nichole said. “I started thinking, I’m doing all of this training…my daughters and I could paint rocks and hide them on our training walks.”

That idea tied in perfectly with a Camino de Santiago tradition where, for thousands of years, pilgrims have carried and left behind colored stones to symbolize leaving behind their burdens. As Nichole made the connection between the Kindness Rocks and the colored stones of the Camino, her initial idea blossomed into a fundraising campaign.

With the help of her daughters—Laura, 14, and Rachel, 12—and a group of volunteers nicknamed “The Rock Painting Ladies,” Nichole sends a box of individually painted MS Awareness Rocks to each donor who gives $35 or more. She includes a note about what she’s doing and why, and asks the donor to help spread awareness by hiding their rocks for someone else to find.

“With my lofty fundraising goal, this was the perfect way to get outside my circle,” Nichole explained.

Daughter Laura took the fundraising campaign a step further when she said, “I want to know where the rocks go.” In addition to an uplifting message or drawing on the front, each rock now has instructions painted on the back: Facebook: Finish MS. Find. Post. Hide Again. Each time someone finds a rock and posts its location on the Finish MS Facebook page, Laura updates her maps. She currently has pins in 50 states and 56 countries.

By tracking the rocks, Nichole and her daughters have elevated the donor experience from transactional to transformational. Rather than making a donation and forgetting about it until tax season comes around, Nichole’s donors are invested and engaged every step of the way. They can see their impact as they watch “their rocks” change hands and travel around the world. Some donors have given more than once because they wanted to help by hiding more rocks. Others have donated to have rocks shipped to loved ones in honor of birthdays, anniversaries and special holidays.

“I never thought it would make such an impact in the world and in people’s lives,” Nichole said. “People I never would have connected with. It’s a great example for my daughters of the power of social impact.”

A Portuguese river guide named Pedro found one of Nichole’s rocks at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and has since become a donor and friend. A woman named Mary who is living with MS and has limited mobility met Nichole through the Finish MS campaign and now helps by painting rocks from her bed. Another woman, affectionately called Aunt Margaret, also met Nichole through the campaign and now paints rocks from her nursing home. In these ways and many more, Nichole is touching lives around the world, weaving a thread that connects her supporters to each other, and building a global community working together to create a world free of MS.

As of today, Nichole has raised $27,001.78 towards her $50,000 goal, with more donations coming in and more rocks going out every day. To learn more about this incredible woman or to support her efforts with a donation, click here. To follow her journey on Facebook, click here.

Fundraising Heroes is an Event 360 blog series where we highlight individuals who are making their communities and the world a better place through their fundraising efforts. We are honored to share their stories.

Suzanne Mooney has worked in peer-to-peer fundraising for 15 years and is grateful to be able to make a living by making the world a better place. She has extensive experience in participant recruitment and retention, communications, and consulting services. When Suzanne’s not working you can find her running, riding her bike, or snuggling old dogs.

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