At the annual South By So What?! music festival that took place over the weekend of March 14th-16th in Grand Prairie, TX, MEB Staffer Austin Gordon got the opportunity to speak to longtime To Write Love On Her Arms staff Chad Moses about the organization, what they do, the programs they’ve created and are involved with, and much more.
MEB: For the sake of readers who aren’t familiar with the movement, the most general question at hand and perhaps one of the most important: what is To Write Love On Her Arms and what does the movement stand for?
Chad: Right on. Well, I guess the most important answer is that To Write Love On Her Arms is a non-profit organization. We are out there to present hope and find help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. Beyond that, we exist to encourage, inspire, inform, and also to invest directly into avenues for treatment and recovery.
The TWLOHA reach is massive worldwide, and getting stronger by the day. There are multiple programs and outreach events that are constantly held. Tell me about some of these programs and their specific goals in the pursuit of hope and self-help.
The foundational level of all of our programs, whether dealing with high-school students, or coordinating individual benefit events, or being active at universities, coordinating 5K runs, being at music events; all of those are trying to answer the question, why are people not asking for help? We know first and foremost, it’s not because people aren’t struggling. In fact, we’re at South By So What?! [music festival], if you were to ask anyone walking in through the gates today, “are you familiar with these issues?”, they would say “yes”, and they would probably be able to rattle off half a dozen names of people, of friends and family. People aren’t asking for help, not because they aren’t struggling, but so often they’re not asking for help because:
- They don’t know they’re allowed to ask for help.
- They don’t know who to ask.
That’s where TWLOHA springs into action, we’re there to challenge stigma, we’re there to show up where people naturally come together; whether that’s a school, or music event, or online. To create a safe environment for conversation nuts, topics regarded as “dangerous” or “taboo”. Beyond that, we want to be a bridge for people that are looking for that help, to that help. Every music event we’ve been to over the past year, we’ve traveled with a collection of mental health resources, specifically centered on the communities we’re visiting. Today at SBSW?!, we have resource pamphlets for San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. Also, on our website, at the “Find Help” section, you can find all of the cities we’ve been to in the last year.
It is stated that TWLOHA’s primary source of income as a non-profit organization is through merchandise sales, rather than through donations alone or grants, things along those lines. Tell me why the decision was made to primarily sustain the organization through this method.
We stumbled on it, originally. If you’re not familiar with the TWLOHA story, the reason we’re funded by shirts and our name is oddly long, is because it kinda started by accident. We originally started as an attempt to help one friend, a her, and help her find help for cocaine addiction and self-injury. One of the principle ways in helping her was to help pay for her rehab costs, and our friend and founder Jamie [Tworkowski]; he did this by selling t-shirts with TWLOHA printed on them. Through the sales of those shirts and through friends and bands wearing those shirts on tour, people came in contact with the organization and said that the gal’s story, Renee [Yohe]’s story, sounded a lot like their fathers, or their best friends, or themselves. Would we be able to help them too? The name stuck and so did the model for selling t-shirts. For us, it’s different. Historically, not a lot of non-profits have operated that way. We are kind of writing the book on this new age of non-profits, and how they’re run. Shirts will always be apart of our story simply because it’s an awesome excuse to be at places like SBSW?!, and the Warped Tour, and so many other festivals. People will be drawn in by a design, and they’ll leave with some courage to talk to someone in their life about what’s going on with their life. We aim to make the shirts conducive to conversation. We want the designs or the phrases or what have you, just be something that people can ask: “where did you get that?”, “what does that mean?”, “does it stand for anything?”, “who is the ‘her’”?, “is that a band?”. We want to create some conversation. I was just telling someone earlier today, one of my favorite moments working for this organization wasn’t behind a booth at all. I was coming home from a festival. I saw this gal, a young gal in her teens, she was clearly having a rough day, this was in the airport. I knew nothing about her story, but you could see on her face it wasn’t the best day for her. She’s walking one direction, I’m walking the other, and right behind me there’s a gentlemen wearing a TWLOHA hoodie. She identifies this hoodie, and you see a smile come on her face. She didn’t know this guy, she had never seen him before, and would likely never seem him after; but in that moment she knew that someone was on her team. She knew that someone related to the exact situation she was currently in, and that gave her enough courage to force a smile. That’s why t-shirts, the shirts fly a banner in places we as a staff we haven’t been or we can’t go to.
Right, they serve as their own medium in their own way.
TWLOHA is a very music-centered, scene-friendly organization; with the partnerships with the Vans Warped Tour for example, to University public speaking events, to the Heavy and Light shows that took to a fantastic tour last year; the outreach expands with the tours. Though this year didn’t see another, are there plans for a continuous TWLOHA-funded and based tour yearly like Heavy and Light to occur?
Yeah, there’s always that hope. It’s really just trying to make it make sense, financially, honestly. As a non-profit, our dreams are often limited by our ledger line. Fortunately, a few years back, actually I was in Dallas when I found out about it, we won a million dollar grant through the Chase American Giving Awards. I was at Unsilent Night [music festival] actually, we had just found out the awards were that night. Our founder knew immediately what we were going to do with that million dollars, and it was Heavy & Light. The [Heavy & Light] tour lives on in those resources, the very same resources that you saw in Dallas are the very same resources you see today, through that tour we were able to start this initiative of having localized resources at present at every event that we go to. We want to hit the road again. This year, we were able to do two dates, which is more than we’ve done in the past, except for the tour. We’re always looking for opportunities so we can do it in a better, broader, smarter, more fun way. Keep an eye on the website, you’ll be the first to know if you’re on our events page.
Of all of the programs that TWLOHA is connected to, it seems that Fears Vs. Dreams has generated the most buzz, or is among the most well known. Even after my own personal experience with it, writing my fears and dreams on the dry erase board, taking the photo to be posted on social media, becoming public, this one is more personal on a simplistic level. When broken down, you have your two primary, contrasting elements. Is there a reason why this simple assessment is so powerful with providing realization on what we desire, what we fear, and how we’re going to overcome all of the obstacles?
I think you have the answer in your question. Why do we keep it simple? Because, keeping it simple is where you’re going to find the most connection. Individuals are vastly complex, but everyone is driven in their own ways by their fears and by their dreams. Asking the question, “what’s your biggest fear?”, “what’s your biggest dream?”, even that question alone can be interpreted so many different ways. I’ve seen answers from “snakes” and “jellyfish” to onto “letting down my friends and family”. I think one of the most beautiful [Fears vs. Dreams] I’ve ever seen was this guy’s biggest fear was “recovery” and his biggest dream was “recovery”. On the other side of that coin, I’ve seen people say their biggest fear is “relapse” and their biggest dream is to “never meet their fear face to face”. Vastly complex, but if you give the campaign enough time, you’re going to see a lot of familiar answers. That’s the hope, the hope is that someone would take the time, just briefly, to just expose part of their soul. The return in that, is to see later on, is that “oh my god, someone feels the exact same way I do”; or “wow, I feel a little bit less alone knowing that I want to do this”. Last year, I was in Washington State, and a gal wrote her biggest dream was “to be a pilot”. Before she passed me this prompt card, she stared at it for a while. I asked her if she was okay, she said “yeah, I didn’t know how long I was holding onto this dream, I’m going to apply to flight school when I get home.”
Oh my gosh.
— A prompt card, led her to chase a dream. We don’t often ask these questions, “what makes you tick?”, “what’s your fear, what’s your dream?” These are things that are very present within us, and until they’re awakened, we don’t know how connected we are to the other people.
That was an answer, right there. Fantastic answer.
One thing I’ve always admired is that fact that TWLOHA themselves aren’t the actual organization providing the help, meaning there aren’t medically trained staff, psychologists, and so forth, just people with passion and love providing resources. Why the decision to effectively serve as “the middle men” for hotlines, centers, and such, rather than being just another outlet?
The decision was kind of made, before decisions even needed to be made. Back to Renee’s story, the reason we were funding Renee’s rehab, was we believed in the work that this rehab center was doing. We believed that Renee’s story was one worth furthering, so the best way that we could see to help her, was to tell her story, and to let the people who were medically trained to do their work the best they can. Beyond that, we’re a small staff. We operate out of a sleepy surf town in Florida. Being that we are not the counselors, and we’re able to fund counseling efforts, and other avenues for treatment and recovery beyond our own grasp in our own area code. For us, we want people to do the work that they do the best that they can. We know that our role in that no one has a counseling degree on our staff, is to empower the people that do have those degrees, that do have those credentials, the letters behind their name, that allow them to diagnose you, or to recommend treatment. We believe in the work that counselors do to the point that we know that they do it better than we do.
That’s a very admirable and honest way of approaching it; rather than trying to necessarily swoop in, if you don’t have all of the right tools to back up all of the help you want to provide.
Even beyond that, perhaps a better answer to your question is that it represents in a better way what community looks like.
That’s exactly right.
We have a friend, his name is Chris Hewarts, he said that: “community is only credible in its’ diversity, and you need to have so many other voices within that community for it to have really true value.” We’re able to offer counselors and treatment centers a voice that they don’t have. We have more followers on social media than these treatment centers will ever have. We are able to point people through our community to there’s. They are able to help our friends that only know us online in a really tangible way through their own recovery efforts.
People can be petty, distrusting, and quick to look for flaws, and I’m assuming that’s why the decision to post many financial records of the organization’s financial expenses, incomes, and just general organization money flow online was made. In light of this, how do you think that decision affects the organization’s image? Many see it as honesty, while others could see it as a positive marketing stunt.
It’s not a marketing decision. It would be far easier to not do this, but for us it’s an issue of transparency and legality. People who are choosing to invest in us have a legal right to know what’s happening with those funds. Being able to post financial records opens the door for so many other opportunities. People who want to invest in us on a foundational level or a grant level. This is some information that can quickly and easily expedite that process. No one on staff is working there in the hopes of being the coolest thing out there. Everyone is out there because they believe that the work that we do is more than a trend. The fact that you’re talking to us eight years after our inauguration, means that this has gone past the “trend” world and into the conversation of “what does this message of hope in the midst of pain, look like?” to an audience that’s growing up with us. What does it look like to an audience that’s growing into us? This isn’t just a music scene issue, anymore. This is more and more evident that this is a ‘people’ issue. The kids that read our Myspace eight years ago are now getting married, maybe now thinking about their own kids, maybe now thinking about their own legacy, and now entertaining the idea of transparency and mental health being a piece of that legacy within their own family moving forward. We posted the financial records because it’s the smart thing to do, it’s the wise thing to do, and it’s the respectful thing to do to the people who have invested in us over the past eight years.
Where does TWLOHA see the outreach spreading internationally? Chapters in Europe and Africa spreading awareness and outreach programs, for example?
That would be awesome. We would love that. We’ve been able to have a pretty consistent presence in Australia over the past few years. One thing that we did this past year when we went to Australia, we hosted “Meet & Greets” in cities like Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth. One thing that really struck us in Melbourne was that we had so many people come out, and so many of those people claimed to be from Malaysia, or Singapore. Places that we had never been to before. They’re there because somehow, somewhere, someone else flew the banner for us. We are wherever our supporters are, we are wherever this interview is being posted. My buddy Chris, who does our social media, says that “the internet brings death to distance,” and we’ve seen the best of that over the years. We have university chapters in Canada, we have one in New Zealand as well. We’ve been to Europe twice in the past two years, and that’s the most consistent presence there that we’ve had since we started this eight years ago. We want to be in so many more places, but we want to be there in the best way possible, in the right way. We’re always keeping an ear to the ground to see what opportunities exist to getting abroad, for sure. If you’re in Africa, and you’re listening to this, send us an email! We would love to get there.
Yes, they should! Because they really need to get everywhere.
Why the decision for the “Run For It 5K”? I believe this is one of the newest programs, right?
Yes! We’re just about a month away from our second annual 5K! This was a vision from a former team member, her name was Holly. She was basically just charged with the question “Holly, if you could do anything for the organization, what would you plan?”. She said “yeah, I think a 5K would be a great thing.” We met with some powers-at-be within our community, they said “awesome, we can help you plan this, here’s the date for it, and you know what, we hope you can get 300 people.” We said “yeah, but we want more than 300 people.” They’re like, “we think it’d be cool if you had 300 people.” Fast forward, about 2 months later and it’s time for the race to start; 600 people show up just to run the race. So many others came up just to be apart of the mental health fair that we had during the race, and before and after the race as well. This was a huge community event. We were seeing travel from all over the state of Florida. This year, not only are we holding the event physically at Satellite Beach in Florida, again; so if you can make the trip, come on down! We’re also doing digital races, so we’re inviting our audience that if they can’t make it out to the actual race, run in your own community. Be a runner on that day. We were enabling through our friends at Stay Classy [fundraising organization] some fundraising pages just for people who want to do this race remotely in her own area. We heard from one lady, I think she’s from South Dakota, sorry if you’re listening to this and you’re not from South Dakota; but she’s planning on running even though the forecast said it was going to be -17 degrees. She said “this is a cause worth running for.” The 5K also represents a new trend within mental health. Mental health can definitely be augmented through physical health. If you look at our staff, we have staff members that run consistently now. One of our staff members, our editor, she ran her first race, that race [“Run For It 5K”]; and now she’s currently preparing for her first half-marathon. This race has, in some way, illuminated some passions within our own life as a staff. We do this race because we love it, we do this race because our supporters seems to love it as well.
That’s amazing. You guys have just become this organization that has spread not only geographically, but you’ve also spread with your ideas, varying ideas. You have a 5K, you’re going to universities, you’re putting on the Heavy & Light tour, SBSW?!, things like that. There’s a lot of ability for reach, for kids of different types. They don’t have to be into this kind of music, they don’t have to be into this scene. It doesn’t matter what background you come from, what music you listen to. The most important thing is that once you accept that you’re ready to find help, you’re there.
As the media has widely publicized, and to some extension, glamorized, the high-school bullying and abuse reality is one of the most centralized, targeted, and known-about sources of depression cases out there. “The Storytellers” campaign, starting at the source, tell me more about it.
“The Storytellers” campaign was a vision from a team member named Chloe [Grabanski, Director]. It was us reacting to the amount of messages that we saw come in through our own social media and emails. It was the idea of that “what if our presence in high schools wasn’t reactive?” – so often, we would hear these heartbreaking messages of another story ending too soon at a high school; people asking us “what can do you for the students left in the wake of this?” What if we can be a proactive voice for suicide intervention, for depression intervention, for crisis intervention at these schools? With a lot of work and a lot of research Chloe started this really formulaic idea on how to plan benefits at your school, how to fundraise at your school, how to be a source of our mission statement within your communities. This program has been going on for I believe about two and a half years now. We’re seeing participation numbers of a hundred schools on average every semester that are doing this. We’re seeing some schools being legacies, that have now applied and carried a program two and three terms now. It’s awesome. It’s really inspiring to see what these high school individuals are doing in their community. We’re talking about high schoolers that are reaching out to local grocery stores and car dealerships and talking to these influential business members of this community, saying “what can you do as a business owner, for suicide prevention, here in this town?” They’re starting conversations that could have been happening for years, but now they have a campaign to give it that last push to really make a lasting impact in their community. We’ve seen some radical things happening through these young people.
How does one go about becoming a part of TWLOHA, how about donating? Being involved?
Absolutely. Go on our website, first and foremost. You can check out a page called “Get Involved” that can give you information on how to plan a benefit, how to join the street team, how to start a university chapter, apply to be a storyteller member for a high school campaign. You can go onto our “Calendar”, you can go onto our “Events” page and you can see where we’re coming through in a town near you; whether it’s a speaking gig or a music event. Beyond that, these issues are so much bigger than the name “To Write Love On Her Arms”. Really, in whatever way you care to care for individuals around you, we want to stand behind that. We want to encourage and empower you to be the difference that you really want to see, that we all want to see in the community that we live in. We would love to be brave enough, bold enough, perhaps even dumb enough to think that we can change the statistics regarding suicide – we can change the trend that those struggling with depression and addiction, so that they don’t struggle in silence anymore. We can connect more and more people to recovery groups. You’re only going to see the global, sweeping, universal changes on an individual level. For those of you that are listening [or reading], do some research. Find out what the local treatment centers are in your area. Find out what the local crisis hotlines are in your area. Be prepared, so when that phone rings at 2 in the morning; you know how you can help this person. We’re not trying to solve depression, we’re not trying to wipe addiction off of the face of the earth. That would be an incredible outcome of first and foremost, caring for individual people. That is the heart of the message – that your life is worth celebrating, that you have value you simply because you’re still breathing, that we want you to wake up tomorrow. Everything else comes after, you.
I just want to say, thank you for representing this organization as fantastic as you did just now. I want to thank your organization for even being around, and offering the support that you have. Thank you for doing this interview for me.
We’re standing on the shoulders of giants such as yourself. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to speak to the folks tuning in. Thank you for listening; and again, know that we’re glad you’re listening, we’re glad you’re here, and we’re glad you believe hope is real.
A very special thanks to Chad Moses and To Write Love On Her Arms for providing us with this interview.