Being a victim of sexual abuse in first grade, Joceline Tabacco said she let shame and guilt consume her, and her once joyful, radiant smile disappeared.

Then in November 2002, she died temporarily after rolling her truck eight times and winding up 4 inches away from the driver’s side window.

She had to relearn how to walk and talk, but her quality of life declined. Because of a damaged hypothalamus (a region of the forebrain that controls memory) and self-medicating with food, she reached 280 pounds by 2011, and her doctor wanted to put her on steroids.

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Driving home from the doctor’s office, she said she prayed for the first time in her life. Minutes later, a stranger practiced a random act of kindness by paying for her meal at a Panda Express drive-thru.

Tabacco said she was floored.

At that point, her life turned in a positive direction. In March of this year, she said she felt a tug to open her eyes of the current reality of the world and was deeply saddened by what she saw.

She felt she was meant to travel the country for some reason, so she quit her job as a special education aide, moved out of her apartment in California and sold her car.

She started a walk for political reasons, but she found out she didn’t want to focus on anything negative.

In late July, she made her way to a friend’s home in Sturgis, Michigan. That friend finally helped her realize what she was called to do — practice and promote random acts of kindness to unite people and create a better world.

On Aug. 23, the 39-year-old started her yearlong journey, known as Born2BeAlive, in Fort Wayne.

“As I was traveling around, I started to get it together and say, ‘Oh, I understand. I am supposed to help people by healing,’” Tabacco said.

“There is a lot of negative things to focus on nowadays. We know that,” she said. “But the way I’ve gotten healthy is not to focus on that. It’s to focus on what I want and random acts of kindness, so that’s exactly focusing on the positive.”

Tabacco purchased a dump cart and filled it with a tent, a sleeping bag, bags for her clothes and toiletries and her laptop. She puts a strap around her hips to pull the cart, which weighs about 100 pounds.

She said she does most of her walking at night. By wearing a reflective vest and flashing lights and walking against traffic, she has found it’s safer because there is less traffic on the roads.

As she approaches a community, she looks up someone to call, such as a church, the mayor’s office or the chamber of commerce, and lets them know what she’s doing and that she’s looking for a safe place to pitch her tent.

So far, traveling through Indiana, that has worked out well.

“As I travel through the small towns, man, the love. You guys take care of each other in small towns, and it has been really receptive,” she said.

During her stops, she finds ways to either perform a random act of kindness herself or encourage someone else to do something good for others.

Her first random act of kindness was in Albany, a town near Muncie. She found out the neighbor of the people she was staying with does a lot of volunteering and helping others, so Tabacco did some yard work for her.

Then in Muncie, Tabacco volunteered at Be My Neighbor Day, which involved a lot of children helping.

“That was fun. I miss being around kids,” she said.

In Anderson, she visited with senior citizens at a convalescent home.

“They thought they had the time of their lives, but I guarantee I got more out of it,” she said. “They were so cool.”

She also has had three restaurants perform random acts of kindness by taking care of someone’s bill. Those included Pasghetti’s Italian Restaurant in Shelbyville, Greek’s Pizzeria and Tapp Room in Franklin and ZwanzigZ Pizza and Brewing in Columbus.

Tabacco caught the people’s reactions on video. She then told them what she’s doing and received permission to talk to them more and shared the video on her website, born2bealive.com.

Tabacco recently stopped in Seymour and got connected with Shawn Malone, owner of The Brooklyn Pizza Co. He allowed her to store her cart in his garage and provided her with food.

“Shawn does a lot for the community, and so that’s definitely who I was supposed to link up with,” she said.

Since leaving Seymour, Tabacco has gone through Austin and Henryville as she continues her journey toward the southern part of the United States and then back up the East Coast.

She said she will do her walk for at least a year.

“It’s not about the miles I put in daily or the destination. This is all about uniting people as human beings because we are all so stinking separated right now,” she said.

“My thing is, why are we being reactive?” she said. “Why are we waiting for another 9/11 or another Joplin, Missouri, when as human beings, it’s possible we could forget our differences? We could do that and we could start helping each other now. We could be proactive. Why wait for another disaster?”

Whenever her journey ends, Tabacco said she plans to write a book about her experience. Her ultimate goal is to create a nonprofit organization.

“I would love to open a nonprofit that spreads random acts of kindness like wildfire everywhere,” she said. “Everyone has the capacity to better themselves. But you know what? Most of us don’t have the energy, and it takes something to impact us to be like, ‘Wow! I can do it.’ Random acts of kindness do that.”

On the Web

To find out more about Joceline Tabacco’s Born2BeAlive walk across the country, visit born2bealive.com.

There, you can watch videos of her journey so far and also donate to cover expenses related to practicing random acts of kindness or provide her with basic necessities.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.