Natalie Foltz used to interact more with cows than people. She grew up the oldest of five siblings on a dairy and grain farm in Callaway, Minn., population 239. For years, she got up at 3 a.m. to milk the family’s 80 Holsteins with her father and uncle. Back then, she had long blonde hair and was a practicing Catholic.
Today Foltz, 41, lives in Minneapolis and works full time as one of the nation’s 1.4 million Lyft drivers and as an occasional Uber driver. She sports a shaved head and, more often than not, a big grin.
Foltz’s approach to being a driver is unusual. As soon as she started driving in August of 2017, Foltz knew she wanted to make a difference for her riders — even if it was just getting them to crack a smile.
She started passing out little handwritten notes with inspirational quotes — a simple act — but one that many passengers find deeply touching. Among them:
• Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. — Eckhart Tolle
• Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better. — Maya Angelou
Some are quotes Foltz crafted herself, such as “Our breathing is like a symphony that connects us all together.”
“At first I was a little shy [about handing out notes], because you have to find the right moment when you’re driving and not distracted. There’s a subtle window of opportunity so you have to be acutely aware to stay safe,” said Foltz.
Foltz also started a Facebook group called “My Ride Tribe” that functions as an online community for her passengers. The page is filled with messages thanking her for the notes.
“Thanks for the uplifting note today, and it was on green paper, my absolute favorite color. Thank you for taking time and brightening my day!” wrote Facebook user Debby Ciccone.
Messages like Ciccone’s give Foltz’s job deeper meaning. While she needs to make money to support herself, her partner and 10-year-old daughter, she’s more concerned with sending positive energy into the universe. She says handing out inspirational notes is the best part of her job.
“It enlivens people. I get to see them smile. Some people laugh. Some people are so thankful they’re giddy. Some women squeal. Everyone’s reactions are different,” she said.
One former passenger, Pete Engstrom, caught a ride from Foltz at the airport after a long day of travel. When they reached his destination, Foltz handed him a note that read, “The light of your smile wants the world.” Engstrom still keeps the note on his desk at home.
“Natalie is unique in that, because she brings that energy, you can almost feel the energy that comes through [her]. It opened me up to chatting and learning more [about her],” said Engstrom.
Foltz lives near Minneapolis’ blindness training center, Blind, Inc. On the occasion that she had a blind passenger, she would read quotes out loud, but soon realized that it was not the same as giving people notes they could read.
Inspired by a Braille book her daughter brought home from school and YouTube videos, Foltz taught herself how to write in Braille. Her first note written in Braille went to a visually impaired couple.
“The woman was like, ‘Oh, how can I give you 20 stars instead of five stars?’ ” Foltz said. “It was great.”
Positivity in hardship
Foltz went through some difficult experiences to become the person — and the driver — she is today. Her first “awakening,” as she puts it, was when she was a 17-year-old high school senior. Her 15-year-old sister had an inflamed heart muscle and needed an immediate heart transplant.
“She waited on life support down here in the Cities in a hospital for 40 days, but a heart that matched her blood type never came,” she said. Foltz and her sister had shared a room most of their lives. They were only a year and a half apart in age.
Her sister’s death was shocking, she said. “But, at the same time, I was still in my same routine. I still lived at home. I still had my senior year of high school to do. But, it also made me acutely aware of just how short life is. That remains deeply ingrained in me every day,” she said.
Ten years later, life handed her another “awakening.” On a spring day in 2004, her husband of two years was celebrating a friend’s birthday at a local bar. Foltz, then 27, was helping her dad on the farm.
Her husband became so inebriated that a waitress felt justified in taking away his car keys. Neither the waitress nor his friends knew that he kept a spare car key hidden in a magnetized box inside the gas tank.
He drove away from the bar and crashed.
“He got ejected from the car because he didn’t have a seat belt on,” Foltz said. “The good thing is, he didn’t hit anybody on the highway and he didn’t suffer.”
After his untimely death, Foltz was in shock for more than a year. Then her life took another turn. A group of Foltz’s girlfriends invited her on a trip to Cozumel, Mexico, in January of 2005. Although this trip was an annual tradition, Foltz had never been invited because it was only for single people.
“The second day we were there, this guy asked me to dance and I felt like I was on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ He was twirling me all over. I felt like lightning struck me. I was like, ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had and he’s the happiest person I’ve ever encountered in my whole life.’
“That’s where my life began,” said Foltz.
That was 13 years ago. The pair has been together ever since.
Healing with love
In addition to driving for Lyft and Uber, Foltz spends her spare time practicing yoga, “ecstatic dancing,” and qigong, a Chinese system of physical exercises and breathing control that Foltz says cured her arthritis.
Though she is no longer a practicing Catholic, Foltz is spiritual in other ways. She is a certified emotion and body code practitioner in energy healing. She is intentional about many things, including the exact number of her downtown Minneapolis apartment. She lives in apartment No. 528, and 528 hertz is the love frequency in the universe, she said.
In March 2018, her intuition told her to get a personalized license plate which reads, “LOVE2U.” On her car, she also has stickers that say, “All are welcome here.” In total, Foltz has given close to 3,500 rides.
And about that number of hugs. More often than not, Foltz said, people accept one.
Foltz’s mantra, “Love everybody unconditionally,” has served her well. She has turned what many would regard as an unremarkable career into a remarkable one.
“Ride-share brings us together in a way that we haven’t been able to experience,” she said.
“It’s way more powerful than it really seems to be.”
Liv Martin is a journalism major in the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.