But she’s trying not to focus on her grief. Instead, she’s looking for ways to make the lives of strangers better and is challenging others to join her.
Arno said her other son, Darango Arno, received a message last month on Facebook about doing a “Polar Plunge,” where friends challenge each other to jump into freezing cold lakes and streams. Some of these events are sanctioned fundraisers, typically done during Maine’s late winter months, and medical staff are on hand in case of emergencies. However, when done alone or just with a friend, a plunge can turn from fun to dangerous in seconds.
The idea has gained traction among teens and young adults, but Arno said it disturbed her, and she spent a number of restless nights thinking of the appropriate way to respond.
Ultimately, she decided to start an alternative Facebook challenge for the month of May, asking participants to take on a task each day that pushes them out of their comfort zone for the sake of helping someone else. Activities have included hugging 10 people, complimenting strangers, and dancing carefree with family or friends for an hour.
The idea gained traction and participants are logging in from around Maine, as well as from as far away as the United Kingdom and South Korea.
Renee Hamlin of Swanville is friends with the Arno family and decided to participate in memory of her brother, a former friend and Dacano, who all recently lost their lives in tragic accidents. She said it has been a way for her to draw from Arno’s strength and it makes her feel good.
“It makes you think of how selfish you are and engulfed in your own life,” Hamlin said. “When you have to look at a complete stranger and say, ‘I like how you styled your hair today,’ it’s a personal thing.”
Hamlin, who works at a convenience store, also has seen the positive impact her participation has had on others. She recently complimented a woman about her necklace and the woman went on to explain that she received it from her late husband and it was a very special piece of jewelry.
“Because of that, I got to know a little bit more about her. It was a great experience,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin explained that while some tasks have not required her to explain what she’s doing, she often finds herself telling people anyway. It’s a way to share Dacano’s memory with people, and most either say they want to participate or share their support.
“They just think it’s amazing that a mother going through that type of grief can think about other people, not herself and not fall into the self pity,” she said.
Some challenges require anonymity. The May 1 task asked participants to leave packages at the doors of strangers without being seen. Several people posted photos, videos or stories of how they sneaked up to doors and left baskets, chocolate bars and kind notes.
Dover-Foxcroft teen Ansalewit Laughton wrote about talking to a stranger at her school who went on to tearfully explain she recently moved to the area, didn’t have friends and was contemplating suicide. Laughton gave her a hug, ate lunch with her, and took her to the school’s guidance office.
Arno said she has been amazed at the stories and is encouraged every day when she logs on and reads about people’s experiences. At first she didn’t expect more than friends or family to participate, but since starting, the page has more than 4,000 people following and more join daily.
“The best part is that people are actually doing this, they’re making a difference and it’s spreading,” she said. “There are people all over the world and that’s crazy. I’ve been shocked at how far it’s gone.”
Hamlin said she also knows people who aren’t formally participating in the challenge but are taking on tasks to help her out or ask about what she has to do each day. Arno said hearing about that type of support often leaves her without words.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m just this one woman in this small town just trying to do something to make sure my son is remembered and honored,” she said, adding that a lot of times the challenges are things Dacano would normally have done with his family.
The challenges aren’t usually determined until a day or two before they’re posted. Arno said she has a list of things she wants people to do this month, but she doesn’t go in any particular order.
“I go with whatever is speaking to me, then when you go on and see the effect it had, you think, ‘what are the chances,’” she said. “These are things people should do every day anyway, but they don’t.”
The anticipation keeps things exciting, at least for Hamlin.
“Every day it’s the first thing I do,” she said. “I roll over, shut my alarm, go to the page and see what she’s posted.”
Arno refused to hint at what the rest of the month might bring, but said she hopes people continue jumping on board. Participants will be entered to win a free balloon ride at the Piscataquis Heritage Balloon Festival, which Arno helps organize, and can join in anytime. But more than winning, Arno wants people to know they are helping her and her family.
“It’s been huge. We sit down and read through (the page) at the end of the night and it’s kind of one of those things that’s unexpected but that’s what makes it great.” she said. “It’s going to be a really bad month for all of us, but this has been about giving something back.”
To participate in the Arno’s challenge or to read about people’s experiences, check out facebook.com/InMemoryOfDacanoArno.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Jody Arno.