Orphan finds his own happiness after mission to make strangers smile

WINTERVILLE, Ga. -- It is every kid’s worst nightmare - and Jaden Hayes has lived it. Twice. First he lost his dad when he was four and then not long after, his mom died unexpectedly in her sleep.

“I tried and I tried and I tried to get her awake - I couldn’t,” Jaden said. 

Jaden was understandably heartbroken.

“Anybody can die - just anybody,” he said. 

But as we first reported in 2015, there was another side to his grief.  A side he shared with his temporary guardian Barbara DiCola after the second funeral.  He told her he was getting tired of seeing everyone sad all the time.

“And that was the beginning of it,” DiCola said. “That’s where the adventure began.”

Jaden asked Barbara to buy a bunch of little toys to bring him here to downtown Savannah, Georgia near where he lived -- so he could give them away.

“Well, I’m trying to make people smile.  Rubber duckies, dinosaurs,” Jaden said. Those are the things that make people smile, he said.

“Yea,” Jaden said.  And what happens to their face?  Jaden makes a smile.

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Jaden Hayes in downtown Savannah on his mission to make strangers smile. 

Barbara DiCola

Jaden targeted people who weren’t already smiling and then tried to turn their day around.  And it worked -- even if it wasn’t always quite the reaction he was hoping for.  

It was just so overwhelming to some people that a 6-year-old orphan would give away a toy - expecting nothing in return - except a smile.

Of course he was paid handsomely in hugs -- and Jaden says those do help.

“But I’m still sad my mom died,” Jaden said. 

This was by no means a fix -- but in the smiles he made -- Jaden clearly found a purpose.

“I’m counting on it to be 33,000,” Jaden says.  Even though it seems like a big goal, Jaden said “I think I can” reach it. 

It’s been 2 years now since we first met Jaden. Today, he lives in Winterville, Georgia with Scott and Diane Hollars, his aunt and uncle.

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Steve Hartman revisited Jaden Hayes who in 2015 went on a mission to make strangers smile. 

CBS News


And although he still thinks about his mom and dad a lot, he says he is doing ‘Pretty good.”

Jaden says he’s in happier place now.

How do you get from the sad place to the happy place?  

“Time,” Jaden says. 

And as for his smile project, he would like to return to that mission someday. But until then, he’s focusing on more age-appropriate goals.

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Steve Hartman revisited Jaden Hayes, who went on a mission in 2015 to make strangers smile. 

CBS News


He wants to be a “famous basketball player and a famous baseball player.”

And there’s the only smile that matters.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us: OnTheRoad@cbsnews.com. 

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.