The Nocturnal Times sat down with the non-profit organization, To Write Love On Her Arms, at this year’s Electric Forest to discuss the inspiring hope they offer millions of people worldwide
To Write Love On Her Arms started with the story of a young woman named Renee Yohe in Orlando, FL. This overwhelmingly uplifting story by the TWLOHA founder Jamie Twokowski, discusses the challenges Renee faced the five days leading up to her departure for rehab. When Jamie came upon her she was coming off a cocaine binge and had been self-abusing. A dark and painful past had haunted this poor young girl, and she was turned away from a treatment center before joining a team of loving support headed by Jamie Twokowski. For the next five days the Twokowski household took in Renee and gave her a homemade crash course in rehab. Essentially her life was saved through the positivity and comfort from her dearest friends. They made a choice to save this girl and she wound up making it all the way to the end of this journey as a reformed confident bright girl thanks to the help of her support system.
Self-abuse, addiction, suicide, mental health issues; these are all too common of a topic and it happens to be seldom discussed and even more rarely treated in the proper manner. Whether it’s someone suffering from one of these issues and they can’t find the help, or they just need that extra push to know there is light in their dark time, chances are you’ve been connected to someone facing their own battles to some degree or another. The story of Renee and Jamie took off quickly and people completely unrelated to this event were reaching out for support for themselves and the brave girl Renee Yohe. When the success story first happened Jamie went to the original social media platform, Myspace, and named the story To Write Love On Her Arms.
Since the first touching story of Renee Yohe and her road to recovery through pure love and support, the TWLOHA cause has taken off and now offers a variety of services to people across the globe. Their footprint spans across 100 countries and they have been the call to nearly 200,000 emails for those in grave need of inspiration. To Write Her Love On Her Arms officially kicked in off 2006 and participated in its first musical gathering, the Vans Warped Tour. For 2016 they have been celebrating it’s decade mark traveling the summer festival circuit once again. We got to speak with one of the most kind-hearted men we’ve met, the Music and Events Coordinator Chad Moses, in this in-depth look into To Write Love On Her Arms and the battles they’ve come to stand for.
THE NOCTURNAL TIMES: Can you talk to us about how To Write Love On Her Arms came about?
To Write Love On Her Arms: TWLOHA was actually the name of a story, a story about our friend Renee and her first five days in recovery from cocaine addiction and finding help with self injury through the context of community. The organization really emerged as a response to people responding to that story. The story found its way onto Myspace because it was 2006. Some shirts were made to help pay our friend Renee’s recovery efforts. And as people were wearing those shirts around, people got curious, they googled the name they read the story and here we are. Beyond just loving the story, there was a feeling of a sense of connection to it. Ya know? Renee’s struggles reminded them of their parents, their friends, themselves. It emerged from people saying they relate to it in really honest ways. If hope and help can be real for Renee, maybe hope and help can be real for me as well. It’s very obvious people are willing to talk about mental health, maybe people don’t know how to start the conversation. So we go where you are. Whether that’s online, at a college campus, or a music festival, really to say beyond anything else, “it’s ok to not be ok, but don’t think that you’re in this alone.” And from there try to connect them to resources that can provide hope and help.
So what kind of online presence do you guys have then?
To Write Love On Her Arms: A rather big one. So we’re one of the most followed non-profits anywhere across social media. So Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, all those things, we’re dipping our toe in Snapchat now. That’s a place where people have really embraced this sense of micro-storytelling. And we’ve been able to see the best and worst of the internet, but man being able to see people care for one another through these micro-storyelling efforts is really something beautiful. Most people interact with us by going to our dot com, which is TWLOHA.com, and that’s where we have a whole host of blogs, a direct link to areas you can find help, both by topic and geography, and a lot of people e-mail in to the tune of 185,000 people. Most of those people who are looking for help, or have found that help and want to check in with us maybe a month or a year or a decade down the road. Over social media, we again try to continue some conversations. Every t-shirt that you see, all the phrases on there come from something that we’ve written over the years. We are very intentional about making graphics about these blogs, about these shirts, about these examples of story-telling that people just naturally relate to that. Maybe you see one that says “You Are Beautiful,” someone needed to say that to someone, someone else is going to need to hear that. If we put that online, some people can own that, ya know “it’s been a while since someone has told me that,” now I feel like that was written to me I can willingly accept that. While we’re not a 24 hour help hotline, we do connect people to those referrals spots on our page.
What are some of the challenges you faced when you decided you wanted to pursue being a legitimate non-profit organization?
To Write Love On Her Arms: Well a lot of it was we were almost instantly in over our heads. It was a lot of learn as you go. We’re kind of in this new wave of non-profits; it was us, Invisible Children, and Charity: Water all kind of coming up at the same time. We’re kind of breaking the rules of non-profits, we aren’t grant heavy, we don’t solicitate funds through faith-based organizations or through government subsidies. Everything we do is grassroots, is through donations and inner fashion sense, which is a very unique model and honestly not one that we’d recommend but for whatever reason has worked for us. When we started it was about helping Renee find help. Over time people said, “I relate can you help me?” And this conversation kind of snowballed. Finding ways to grow our team while keeping the integrity of the grassroots effort of it, the individuality of it, definitely a challenge and one we still embrace today. That tension is something we’re super comfortable living in. We don’t want to be a huge corporate entity, we want to be where you are, we want you to see our face, we want you to participate in our hand written expressions. So much of it is as you grow, keeping on a one to one level. If we fail to make you feel unique then we’ve completely lost site of our mission, at the end of the day this world revolves around your breathing. I’ve never lived a day without you in it, I don’t care to live a day without you in it. And that’s a message that we’re trying to replay with every single conversation we have at these booths, online, through our speaking events.
“…at the end of the day this world revolves around your breathing. I’ve never lived a day without you in it, I don’t care to live a day without you in it.”
Is there anything in particular you think that has made your online and media presence so effective?
To Write Love On Her Arms: Well a lot of it we’ve had help. The primary way that word got out about the effort to help Renee was through bands wearing our shirts on tour. And that just spread by word of mouth. Just yesterday we were shocked and thrilled to see Diplo give us a shoutout on his Instagram. That’s not something we asked him to do, he just had heard of us and said “Ya know what I want post this image that you had put out.” So much of it is just through these honest interactions. Another great example; we have a great relationship with the woman’s national soccer team. That’s totally organic, a number of these woman said these issues matter to us, and we want to care for our fans in a unique way. We’ve been able to grow beyond our own power, it’s through people sharing really vulnerable bits of their own story to hopefully build a stronger network of people.
Are there any big success stories or past interactions that stand out for yourself while working with TWLOHA?
To Write Love On Her Arms: This is one of several dozen festivals that we’re going to this year. There’s a number of festivals that we go to every single year with the intention of seeing familiar faces. There’s this one girl that I met at a festival in Columbus Ohio last year. We’ll call her “Daisy” for the sake of convenience. Daisy had been struggling with some substance abuse and she stumbled across our booth. She heard our story, she asked some questions, we hung out. And before she left she asked, “Hey what if I’ve already fucked up today?” And I said, “Well Daisy today’s still young. We got a lot of the day left to go, you’ve been at my booth for 15 minutes now and we’ve been safe so far.” She nodded and walked away. About six hours later Daisy comes back and she says, “Hey I’m on my way to the bathroom, I’m gonna flush the rest of my drugs I’m ready for a new start.” This year all four days of that festival went by, she came by on the last day at the very end to say, “Hey I don’t know if you remember me, but I’ve been clean for 52 weeks now.” So ya know you get to see these little stories, there was 80,000 people at that festival, but I’m always gonna remember Daisy. She didn’t need to share that with me, but you know maybe next time we get to 104 weeks. Who knows where her story is now, but the fact that she was able to latch on to that one moment to find hope in our organization. That means the world to us. That’s replayed time and time again over the years. People that write in saying I just started seeing a counselor for the first time, I feel like I’m making progress. Or I’ve welcomed my parents into my story and I thought that they’d turn their back on me but actually we have a stronger relationship than ever before. I could throw out the numbers of these 185,000 messages or the $1.6 million we’ve been able to give to other organizations or the 3.6 million miles we’ve traveled. But that doesn’t sound as cool as “I’ve had four really awesome hugs today from people that needed it,” I’ve had people that say “I’m alive because you guys answered an e-mail back in 2008.” Those are the micro-moments that really make this all worth it.
Do you believe society as a whole is going in the right direction as far as support, or are we regressing with the current gloomy news as of late?
To Write Love On Her Arms: We’re facing struggles that our grandparents would never have thought possible. At the same time we’re talking about things that our grandparent dealt with, that they never thought they’d be able to talk about. It’s a give and take, it’s an ebb and flow. The reality of it is that right now rates of suicide are at a 30 year high. That sucks. These aren’t just numbers, these are names, these are faces, these are family members, people that are loved, that were capable of loving others. So much of it again is we’re not going to affect the big numbers, unless we’re doing a good job sharing our stories with one another on an individual face to face basis. We are seeing some great advancements in how we are talking about things, there’s a difference between talking about things and talking about them appropriately. We’re learning how to care for one another in great ways. But we have a lot of work to do. At the end of the day, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get rid of addiction or suicide or depression as problems. But we can attack the thing that allows those to thrive. We can attack that isolation, we challenge that stigma, we can just keep pounding that drum at festivals like Forest and say “Look you’re allowed to feel whatever you need to feel today. You are valid. You validate yourself. You don’t need to make apologies for anything. But know that if you’re looking for a new start, if you’re looking for a breath of fresh air that that’s also possible.” Are things getting better? I think in some ways. Are things sliding backwards? In some other ways yea, but as long as we’re still talking about these things then that means that people have more of an opportunity to find that help and wake up tomorrow.
So I’m going to assume that you’re a believer in second chances?
To Write Love On Her Arms: Absolutely man. I’m a believer in third chances, fourth, fifth, sixteenth, we’re doing our job if you wake up tomorrow. If all we have is this moment, then let’s extend this moment for as long as possible. I’ve seen it play out too many times that one conversation has the ability to turn someone’s life around. We’re given this moment and if we can use this moment to foster more of a connection then I think that tomorrow is going to be a brighter day.
With the increased volume TWLOHA is handling, is there any new challenges or adversities you guys have been dealing with?
To Write Love On Her Arms: We’re a small staff, there’s 14 of us. We’re working near constantly, so I think one realistic challenge is as we’re trying to increase that volume, trying to practice good self care. Fortunately we’ve been able to grow a huge network of supporters that are able to continue to further our message on our behalf. Most of the people that have heard of us at this festival didn’t hear about us from me or through one of my 13 coworkers. They heard about us through a media outlet, they heard about us through another fan, they heard about us through Diplo or what have you. We want to keep growing, but we also want to be sure that we’re doing the best job that we can with the assets that we have. Money will always be in short supply, so the game of being a non-profit is learn how to do more with less. And that means asking for help as well. If we’re going to tell you to ask for help, then we have to be honest and ask for help when we need it as well. So the challenge is believing in the things we tell other people, to be true for ourselves as well. To have grace with ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, to give ourselves rest as we continue to grow. I don’t think it’s a challenge that’s specific to us, I think that it’s something that everyone battles on some level.
Are there any long term plans? Anything exciting going on you guys are working towards?
To Write Love On Her Arms: So we just turned ten, and not many things get to turn ten. So we’re kind of reveling in that. Celebrating that and the hope is more, bigger, better, more often. Nothing at this point halfway through this year that we are specifically geared towards as like a five year or ten year plan. But we do have some annual campaigns that we are really excited about. Our next huge campaign coming up is National Suicide Prevention week and World Suicide Prevention Day. That happens the second week of September, so World Suicide Prevention day is September 10th and National Suicide Prevention week is the week surrounding that day. That’s been a campaign that’s been growing and those conversations have been utterly beautiful. Seeing people talk honestly about things we don’t honestly talk about. Our next big goal is making sure that this National Suicide Prevention week is the most active that we’ve ever had. Beyond that the hope is to see you more often. Keep an eye on our calendar we’re constantly adding dates.
Specifically at Electric Forest this year TWLOHA was not only offering communal support and vending their signature merchandise, but they also had an exchange project in the booth. With stacks of paper and sharpies on hand, people were welcomed to walk in the tent for the first half of the week and write a note. It could’ve been addressed to themselves, past or future, to a friend, to someone in need, anything that person felt they needed to share. You then could hang it up for display on the many lines of staggered string with a paper clip. The inspiring notes were then up for grabs the second half of Electric Forest, for anyone that needed a particular boost. The To Write Love On Her Arms booth was jamming all week during Electric Forest, and people were making their own connections with others through this novel and vulnerable exchange.
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