In the space of five years, Kath Koschel broke her back twice, was told she would never walk again, faced having her leg amputated and lost the love of her life.
It would have been understandable if she'd curled up in a ball and cried: "Why me?"
Instead, the 34-year-old former NSW cricketer started Kindness Factory. And started travelling the world, inspiring kindness in the likes of the Obamas, the Dalai Lama, and countless athletes, businesspeople and schoolchildren.
Her Kindness Curriculum has just been picked up by the 3000th Australian school, with plans for the US, UK and New Zealand. When we meet, she tells me she has 36 speeches scheduled in the next two weeks.
"It blows my mind that I am now leading a global movement, all through one little story of never giving up," she says.
We meet outside her waterfront home in Fairlight in Sydney's northern beaches, where she took refuge during COVID, after years on the global speaking circuit, spending more time on planes than land, she says.
She rattles through her story like she's told it a thousand times, which she probably has.
It starts, aged eight, as the youngest and only daughter of four kids. Encouraged to choose ballet when all she wanted to do was play cricket, she threw away the tutu, broke her mum's heart, and joined the local all-boys competition. She made the NSW squad at the age of 14, then later fast-tracked her university exercise science degree to move to the UK on a cricket contract. Finally, in 2011, aged 23, she was picked for the NSW Breakers rep team and came home.
So far, so on track. "It was a dream come true," she says. "I was so obsessed with cricket. All I ever wanted to do was to make it to that kind of level and play for Australia so for it to happen was phenomenal."
Her first game, at Adelaide oval, she scored 57 runs and won player of the match.
Three games later, she broke her back. In what may have been a defect she'd had since birth, or something exacerbated by the round-the-clock training, or both, two of her vertebrae cracked onto each other, with part ending up in her spinal cord.
She couldn't feel anything below her waist and was told chances were slim she'd walk again. After multiple surgeries, she had a total disc replacement in the hope that it would provide more mobility. She spent two weeks in traction, unable to move - "with lots of head noise creeping in" - then had to learn to walk.
The first day she took two steps, the next four, then eight - "I just broke it down like any other goal" - and everything seemed to be going well. After six weeks recovering in the Gold Coast, she was allowed back to Sydney to recuperate. "I was so sure I'd be back, and playing for Australia," she says.
Then, she woke up with a blue left leg, went to take a step and fell flat on her face. "I thought, 'shit, I'm in strife here'." She crawled to her car and drove herself to hospital. "Stubbornly I didn't ask my flatmate for help. I didn't want to wake anyone. I just went into fix-it mode. And my right leg was working."
There, she learned the blood pressure in her leg was dangerously low.
She was back to square one, except this time she would need to have her leg amputated from the knee down. (Finally, she called someone - her brother, a butcher, who alarmingly arrived in his work gear.)
Told exercise might help, she trained at the Cricket NSW gym in the middle of the night, alone except for security guard Franky, who would strap her un-co-operative leg in and out of exercise machines with electric tape.
It didn't work and the night before the scheduled amputation - after hosting a Kath's Last Day With Two Legs BBQ - she collapsed and was rushed once more to hospital, to learn the surgeon had nicked an artery during her disc replacement. She didn't lose her leg, but endured more emergency surgery ... and had to learn to walk again, with six months' more full time rehab.
"I don't love rehabs, they are a real stale environment and not a place for anyone to thrive in," she says. "I was looking at a lengthy stint - pack up your life, quit your job and off to rehab you go - in a geriatric ward, aged 23. I ended up befriending the elderly. All I knew was cricket and here I am, making friends with a war veteran with bullets in his back who taught me so much about life."
Love and loss
She also fell in love, with Jim Punter, a rugby league player one year her senior who had damaged his spine in an obstacle race.
"Three months into our relationship, I remember thinking 'I am so grateful I broke my back because I wouldn't have met Jim'. I was actually really glad it happened because the future we were planning was going to be far better than hitting a ball around a park," she says.
"I was in complete loved-up bliss. A time that should have been so horrific for both of us was one of the most magical times of my life."
The couple had been together for a year, were set to move together to the Gold Coast and had been talking about having babies - three boys and a girl, just like Koschel's family. But, the night before he was to be released from full-time care, Punter inexplicably took his own life.
A lot of people say trauma, grief and loss don't equal kindness and I disagree with that.- Kath Koschel
For Koschel, it was a massive shock. "It's so clichéd but Jim was never going to be that guy that took his own life. He was the one that gave joy and hope and humour to everyone he met. He was so strong for me and got me through this process and how could I have not done that for him? There was a lot of self-blame and responsibility I took on."
For a while, she didn't think she would get through it.
"All the dreams we'd been dreaming that made our time bearable in rehab, they were about to come true the very next day," she says. "I don't think I could go through anything tougher, ever. And that's a refreshing feeling, to know that life can never get as tough as that."
Typically, she is pragmatic about her trauma and loss. "I just absolutely lost myself in the immediate two-, three-year period post losing Jim, up until launching Kindness Factory. Everyone thinks it's this truly inspirational story and it is - don't get me wrong, I'm happy, it's not fake - but I've experienced and felt the hard times as well. I didn't know how to cope. First, I lose this dream of playing cricket, then I lose the person that taught me that there was so much more to life than playing cricket. It was tough."
Gratitude was a turning point.
"When you're in a wheelchair and you can't reach a lift button and a random stranger walks past and they press that button, those moments really matter," she says. "Having experienced all of that stuff through all my really low points in life, I just decided I wanted to pay forward some of that kindness."
She started performing small acts - smiling at someone in the street, shouting a homeless person dinner, buying a wheelchair for a kid. One day, she brought a random stranger's petrol - and then the stranger shared it, and it ended up on TV.
On the third anniversary of Punter's death - November 13, 2015 - she started a Kindness Factory social media page to share her acts of kindness. She was still working as operations manager at Cricket NSW, loving it, with this little kindness thing on the side.
Three months later, tragedy struck - again. Having just learned to walk for the second time, she was "cleaned up" by a drunk 4WD driver in the early hours of the morning, halfway through a bike ride from Cronulla to Manly with friends.
"I broke my back again, in four places, shattered my hip, broke my right wrist, dislocated my neck, and woke up to the news that I was paralysed and would never walk again, for the second time in my life," she says.
So totally random, and even worse, she knew just how difficult rehab was going to be. "I'm in this hospital bed, wondering how on earth has this happened to me again," she says. "And everyone kept saying to me, 'you've done this once before, you can do it again'. But I was so tired, so exhausted."
But something happened when she was stuck in an ICU bed and couldn't give out her kindnesses. Her followers did. Hundreds and thousands of them sent messages of support and detailed their own random acts of kindness: Today I brought someone a coffee. Today I mowed my neighbour's lawn. Today, I donated blood. Because of you, today I reached out to someone in need.
"It boosted me so much," she says. "They have no idea the impact that had on my recovery, to see all these people engaging with kindness."
And, just like that, her little movement turned outwards. She put the challenge out: tell us your acts of kindness. Stunningly, Kindness Factory now has more than 3 million logged acts.
In 2017, rehabilitated - albeit walking with a limp - she upped the ante, leaving her home with nothing but the clothes on her back, to prove that you can survive on kindness from strangers. In two months, she travelled the entire nation, with 10,000 strangers reaching out to her via social media. "You can do so much," she says.
Spreading the kindness
Next, she launched a Kindness Curriculum into schools. For years 1 to 12, it promotes attributes such as perspective, positivity, self-acceptance and trust through storytelling and activities. Teachers have told her it's connecting. Big, "problematic" boys have sobbed in class because they felt seen and heard for the first time. "It could be one of the last opportunities those children or young adults have before they choose another path that might not include kindness and could include crime or drugs," she says.
Today, six years after Koschel launched Kindness Factory, compassion and kindness ranks higher on employability surveys than technical skills and ambition. During COVID-caused lockdowns, visits to Koschel's website and logging of acts of kindness increased by 60 per cent. "In times of struggle, people turn to kindness to help survive - as we re-emerge, let's allow it to help us thrive," says Koschel.
There's strength in kindness - something she knew all along.
This week, ACM (publisher of this website and Australia's largest independent media business) launches a partnership with the charity to help spread the Kindness Curriculum into 80 more schools through the Kind Schools network.
"Kath has an incredible story of resilience and adversity," ACM's managing director Tony Kendall said. "It's something we as a business can learn a lot from. Our partnership with the Kindness Factory has already opened our eyes to how we can all live and work in kinder ways. Something that will benefit us for years to come.
"With ACM's significant reach across the country from 142 mastheads we will provide a platform to help amplify Kath's story. Poor mental health is a significant issue in society and ACM wants to do all it can to assist kids across the country with their health and wellbeing."
In addition, ACM's newly launched insurance business, View Insurance, will donate an amount equal to 2 per cent of the premium of each policy sold to the Kind Schools network. That would ensure ongoing funding for the important work of the Kindness Factory, Mr Kendall said.
"When we started this, it was really just me recognising that kindness had played a huge part in my life," Koschel says. "My job now is to keep it in front of people and that's why the Kindness Curriculum and the Kind Schools network that we are building out with ACM is so important. This is the generation that's going to change the world. They are so purpose driven and they are the ones that need to be leading the charge."
Of course, Koschel has terrible days. The anniversary of Punter's death - also World Kindness Day - is almost here, and always in her thoughts.
"But the exchange and energy that people are giving each other through the movement I've created is something that lights me up," she says. "So when I am starting to lean into that darker space, I can just think of that."
Her attitude to all her traumas is remarkable - she says she wouldn't change a thing and has even forgiven the drunk driver. "He did the wrong thing and it derailed my life. But he got some pretty hefty punishment and I don't think he intentionally set out to hurt me and I've let that go.
"A lot of people say trauma, grief and loss don't equal kindness and I disagree with that. Maybe I've had enough adversity to last four lifetimes by the age of 34 but maybe the rest of my life is going to be completely amazing, who knows?
"I've got to believe that, right?"
World Kindness Day is November 13. Log your act of kindness at kindnessfactory.com.
- Lifeline 13 11 14