Do you remember when you first saw or heard about To Write Love On Her Arms? For me, it was the t-shirts. I started seeing them everywhere, growing like an epidemic. But what did it all mean? TWLOHA is an organization that battles depression, suicide, addiction and self-mutilation, but there is a lot more to it than that. Founder Jamie Tworkowski explains the role of music and religion, where the proceeds go, plans for the future, and any other question you've been brewing about the meaning behind those trendy tees.
First of all, thank you for speaking with us. Can you give us a general overview of the organization and what you do over there?
Jamie: TWLOHA aims to present hope and find help for young people struggling with issues such as depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. We exist to encourage, inform and inspire. These are issues that, for the most part, remain hidden and quiet. We want people to know that it's okay to talk about these things, that community is essential, that we need people who know us, people we can walk through life with. We hope to be a great first step to recovery. On our MySpace and in emails, we're constantly pointing people to places where their needs can be met. Resources such as support groups, treatment centers websites, books, etc. We have a small team that handles those responses and we're in the process of adding more. Support groups, treatment centers, websites, books, etc. Beyond that, we invest financially, 25% of everything that comes in, to treatment and recovery through several different organizations.
I'm the founder, and I guess my title would be "Director". "President" sounds cheesy. I lead our team (which is small but growing) and focus on a lot of the creative ideas and decisions. There's a lot of surprising doors opening and we're trying to continue to do this thing in a way that's creative, tasteful, hopeful. I spend a lot of time writing, speaking, working on partnerships and relationships with other folks doing similar things, seeing how we can work together.
Let's start with the beginning: the story behind To Write Love On Her Arms. If you head to your website, there is the story of Renee - there it mentions her issues with drug use and self-mutilation, and how you guys created your own mini five-day rehab program for her. Was she the first individual that you rescued, or was this a project you had been working with previously?
Jamie: I wouldn't say "I rescued her." I would say that I was one of several people there when she was ready to get help. There were people before me who did their best to love and help her for months, before I met her or even knew she existed. A lot of it was timing.
This was my first encounter with a situation or experience like this. There was no "project" in the works at that point. And even when I wrote the story, printed the shirts and started the MySpace - I didn't see it as a project beyond helping her and hoping that people might relate and find hope in her story. Definitely didn't mean to start a non-profit. That happened by accident, just because of the amazing response with the story, the MySpace and the band support.
How did you meet Renee? What about her story inspired you to start TWLOHA?
Jamie: It was February of last year (2006), and I was working full-time for Hurley then, as their sales rep in Florida. I was renting a room from a friend in Orlando. That friend's name is David McKenna. He now manages a band called Between the Trees and runs Bonded Records. David's personal story is one of recovery. He is a recovering addict, and so they connected because of that, their stories. Renee began to reach out to him and he would encourage her to get help. For several weeks, she wasn't ready to take a step, and then one night when I was with him, the phone rang and it was her and she was ready to take that first step.
Like I said, I wouldn't say her story inspired me to start an organization. I only meant to tell some of her story, and to invite others into it. I think I was just blown away because here was this amazing, unique, beautiful person, so alive and with so much to give, and yet she was so trapped and in so much pain. I just wanted her to stay alive in every sense of the word. I wanted her to be free.
Where is Renee now? How is she doing? Do you stay in touch often?
Jamie: She is still in Florida, doing really well. She is sober and healthy. She's in school. Her recovery is something she'll continue to walk through for the rest of her life. I know that won't be an easy road, but I am so proud of her. She is an incredible, gifted person. I tried to capture some of that in the story, just how amazing and unique and alive she is. She has so much to offer, she's an incredible communicator, a great writer herself. I hope and believe she's going to be telling her story, inspiring and encouraging people, for the rest of her life. I talked to her today. : )
When did TWLOHA officially become a non-profit? As a registered non-profit, what are you required to do? Do you donate a certain portion of your proceeds, and to who do they go to?
Jamie: We started operating under the umbrella of another non-profit, Fireproof Ministries, my friend Craig's organization, in October of last year. We worked with them until September 1 (this year) and now we're on our own. We established TWLOHA, Inc. in Florida as government-recognized non-profit organization. We're required to share a mission statement, to show what we're trying to do and how, and we're required to show where the money goes.
Yes, 25% of all our proceeds go to treatment and recovery through the following organizations:
NATIONAL HOPELINE NETWORK (1-800-SUICIDE) - WWW.HOPELINE.COM
The National Hopeline is a non-profit organization that fights suicide at the front lines. Their toll-free call line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and links the caller to the nearest crisis hotline in their area. To date, they have received over 2 million calls from individuals struggling with thoughts of suicide.
TEEN CHALLENGE - WWW.TEENCHALLENGEUSA.COM
Teen Challenge is a rehab program with locations in 70 different countries. "Teen Challenge endeavors to help people become mentally sound, emotionally balanced, socially adjusted, physically well, and spiritually alive." Many Teen Challenge centers offer treatment for free, and that is made possible through donations.
MERCY MINISTRIES - WWW.MERCYMINISTRIES.ORG
Mercy is a non-profit organization for young women who face life-controlling issues. They provide residential programs free of charge designed to address the whole person: spiritual, physical and emotional. Mercy homes are located in the USA, Australia, and the UK. Construction is underway for Mercy's first home in Canada.
S.A.F.E. (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) - WWW.SELFINJURY.COM / 1-800-DONT-CUT
"S.A.F.E. Alternatives is a nationally recognized treatment approach, professional network and educational resource base, which is committed to helping you and others achieve an end to self-injurious behavior."
KIDS HELP LINE (Australia) - WWW.KIDSHELP.COM.AU / 1-800-55-1800
Offers free, confidential, anonymous 24-hour phone and online counseling for young people (5-25) in Australia.
INDIA: Back in January, three of us traveled to Kolkata, India, as part of a group there to experience the work being done in the fight against human slavery. We partnered with two different organizations, and as part of our commitment to the children we met and the work we experienced, 5% of the money we give away will go to those organizations:
Apne Aap - WWW.APNEAAP.ORG
Sanlaap - WWW.SANLAAPINDIA.ORG
Beyond that, we believe that all the work we do is important, not just donating to treatment and recovery. We have a small staff, and that includes part-time help who respond to MySpace messages and emails everyday. To me, that's the heart of what we do. That's the most important piece, that interaction and being in a place to encourage people who are hurting. In so many cases, those are folks talking about these issues, sharing their struggles, asking for help, for the very first time. To me, it's a privilege that we get to respond to those messages. We get opportunities to speak and be a part of different concerts, tours, events, etc. Warped Tour was obviously a huge example this summer, and we're already looking forward to next summer, so our team works to make those things happen. We're starting to focus more on our street team and ways we can equip people. We don't just want to equip them to promote TWLOHA. We want to educate and encourage people so that they understand these issues, so they can walk with friends who are dealing with these things.
What projects have been your main focus - like taking the organization international, speaking tours or building up the street team? How close are you to reaching your 2007 goal of raising $100K?
Jamie: Yes, the idea of "global" is hugely exciting, just knowing these are not "American" issues, these are not even white or emo issues. These are human issues. Every single day, we're hearing from people in Canada, Mexico, Australia, the UK, other parts of Europe, South Africa, and many more. We did a survey a couple months back and I think we heard from folks in close to 40 countries. So that was pretty amazing and yes, it's definitely a priority to get involved in what's happened and be part of solutions around the world. It's going to take some time but it's definitely close to my heart, this idea that the world is feeling smaller and smaller, that the impossible is feeling very possible.
Beyond this, we're focusing on adding an element of Live Help, where people will be able to interact with licensed counselors in a setting that is real time, anonymous, private and free. We're planning to start visiting the other org's we support, one a month, to show our audience the great work being done in the face of these issues. We're working on "Stop the Bleeding" shows, nights that are mostly music, but also elements of art and speaking. And we always try to partner with people and places meeting needs locally. And we open it up for Q&A with the audience. STB is an attempt to create a setting that is honest, inspiring, and hopeful. Trying to bring all the elements of TWLOHA to a club setting. Finally, we're working on a compilation CD, which will be similar in that we believe in music and we love the idea of creating something hopeful.
As for the $100k goal, we still have a 2 and 1/2 months to go. I don't have the exact # in front of me, but I think we can get there. We rec'd $10k from MySpace in September, when we won the Impact Award, and we passed 100% of that on to treatment and recovery, so that was a a big help and a great surprise. We've also set some money aside to invest in launching Live Help, so that's part of the equation as well...
I have heard that TWLOHA no longer works with Fireproof Ministries. Why is this?
Jamie: The Fireproof relationship was perfect for getting us off the ground. My friend Craig Gross runs it and he has been like a big brother. I literally moved into his basement in Michigan last Fall, followed him around, asked him a million questions. He helped us a ton. But, we were paying Fireproof 10% of everything we brought in, and as we've grown, that's become a lot of money, money that could be going elsewhere, so that was a huge part of it. And another reason was that the Fireproof relationship meant we had to be based in Michigan, and I started to feel stronger and stronger about us being in Florida. Florida is my home, it's where this started, it's where our team is now, it's where our Board of Directors is, and all of that feels right... We're on great terms with Fireproof. We believe in them, they believe in us. Craig is a friend. We're still talking about ways to support each other. No bad blood. No drama. It's kind of like growing up and moving out of your parents house. It doesn't mean anything is broken. It was just time to grow up, time to move on, to stand on your own.
How is faith and spirituality incorporated into what you do at TWLOHA and how big of a role does it play?
Jamie: The language of what I believe (personally) is pretty obvious in the (TWLOHA) story that I wrote. But we surprised some people in that we, TWLOHA, don't call ourselves "a Christian organization". I think the language of what I believe has been grossly abused. Today, the word "Christian" offends a lot of people. It means things I wish it didn't, so we're trying to acknowledge that and use language that is inviting, comfortable, honest. And i think I knew we were going to have to choose our battles, so the one we're putting at the top of the list is that we want to meet people where they are, as they are. We want to help people, encourage people. The last thing we would ever want to do is push people away.
I will say that my faith plays a huge part in my life, why I am the way I am, how I see the world. And in my own battles with depression and seasons of hopelessness, my faith helps me keep going.
I am a huge fan of Bono and U2. He is my favorite example. He is a man of faith, bent on seeing the world change, but he is also very honest and real. He admits his demons, his questions. He wears it all on his sleeve. I like that. And you don't see anyone calling U2 "a Christian band", because that's a stupid phrase that doesn't really mean anything.
Something that strikes me and impresses me the most about the TWLOHA story is the how you include the power of music as a source of healing. It's difficult to put into words (or even a tangible thought) of what music means to me, and there are tons of other people that feel the same way. Please tell me more about how music is important to the rescuing process.
Jamie: I just know for me that music is powerful. I can look back on my darkest moments and seasons and remember the songs that helped get me through, even the specific lyrics that helped get me through. So I think songs can be like friends in that way, they can go places and say things beyond, or maybe before, what conversations can. At the end of the day, I think we love music because it makes us feel. That's pretty important.
That said, I think "emo" is a word that's horribly overused and abused. Society and pop culture, more and more, seems to laugh in the face of young people who love music and also struggle with issues of pain. I think that is absolutely terrible, and it makes me mad. We just want people, all people, to know that they're not alone, that these are things we need to talk about, and to know more than anything that there's hope.
How has your relationship with music changed since you've grown with TWLOHA?
Jamie: I think i just appreciate it more and more, believe in it more and more. I have always loved it and now I happen to be in a unique position to get close to it, to get to know a lot of my favorite bands. And when I fall in love with a song, I get to tell a whole bunch of people about it : )
What band or musician have you been most surprised or excited to see wearing a TWLOHA t-shirt? What band or musician would you love to see involved in the organization?
Jamie: Man, there's been so many. That's a tough one. I think Bayside has surprised me the most, just the way that they have embraced it. They've been incredibly supportive and generous. We got to know them on the Anberlin tour last Spring, and then they invited us to live on their bus for two months during Warped. You would think by now they would be sick of us, but now they've asked us to be part of their Fall headlining tour.
And beyond the time spent together and being busmates, I'm just humbled because I believe in them as a band. I believe in their story, as it is one of pain and loss, of overcoming and letting go. They make music that is raw and honest and intense. More than anything, I am proud to call them my friends.
To answer the other part of the question, U2. Just because they've inspired me so much. I would love to be on Bono's radar, just to be able to thank him for the way he's used his gifts, for the way he lives his life.
Beyond that, I hope to meet Gerard and MCR, because I think there's some common ground there for sure. I love his song "Famous Last Words". That was our song for a while...
What bands or albums have you been spinning recently?
Jamie: I am in love with the new Radiohead album (In Rainbows) at the moment. There's a song called "All I Need" that I'm running into the ground. Been listening online to the first two of four Thrice EP's from The Alchemy Index. Just been listening on their MySpace but that comes out Tuesday. I am a huge Jimmy Eat World fan as well, so Tuesday is looking good. Beyond these, let's see... My diamonds in the rough are two Canadian bands, Pilot Speed and In-Flight Safety, and two solo friends, Damion Suomi and Josh Moore (from Beloved). Also listening to The Spill Canvas, Tegan & Sara, Mew, The Almost, Ryan Adams, and going back to some Jeff Buckley, and old Counting Crows and U2.
Being on the road with bands and festivals (Warped Tour, Cornerstone, etc.), the opportunity comes up to meet many people and hear their stories. What is one of the stories - from bands or fans - that has always stuck around in your mind and why?
Jamie: We hear from a lot of people who are literally choosing life, as in they were considering suicide and then TWLOHA played some part in them changing their mind. It never gets old hearing something like that, but the one I want to share is this:
I met a guy at Warped Tour in Dallas, I remember that the first thing I noticed was the studs on his jacket. I remember he looked a bit more "punk rock" than the average guy who walks up to say hello. But I figured out pretty fast that he was hurting. He had tears in his eyes as he told me how much the TWLOHA story meant to him, and how he could relate because his ex-girlfriend was in a similar situation. I could tell he was really haunted by that, wishing he could help her. I could relate to that in my own life, my own story, at that time. And we had a long talk about letting go and grace and learning to forgive ourselves. I told him that he needed to hear "Amazing, Because It Is" by The Almost, that it was the song that was keeping me going on Warped. That was two months ago and then today I got an email from him and he said that hearing them (The Almost) do that song that day was a moment he'll never forget, and he said that he's doing much better, that he's actually playing benefit shows and helping his friends walk through their struggles. I'm gonna save that email for sure...
Tell us about the Stop the Bleeding Tour. What about doing a college campus tour?
Jamie: I touched on it earlier. Just all the elements of what we do in a live club setting. Music, art, words, maybe some film, more than anything we hope to display hope and help, to point people to places where needs are being met in their city. And then we love opening it up for questions and conversation, just trying to create something real and hopeful.
Will you still be heading to Australia?
Jamie: Yes, sometime before February of next year. Hopefully for at least a couple weeks. Hopefully for some events but mainly just to learn. Australia and New Zealand are places where suicide outnumbers murder. We just want to begin to understand their culture and how we might be able to be part of the solution.
What can supporters of TWLOHA do to help the cause?
Jamie: Donate, buy a shirt, join the street team, tell your friends, but more than anything; learn what it means to live an honest life and to walk with people who are hurting.
Any last words?
Jamie: Just that we weren't meant to do life alone, and that we're not alone if we deal with these things. I am a person who deals with pain, I live with questions, I go to counseling. There's nothing we can't talk about. These issues are very treatable, there's a ton of hope that exists in the face of them. We think that's an amazing thing and we just want to invite people into this conversation.
To Write Love On Her Arms is the organization that has inspired me most.
Too often stories of depression and self-injury are swept under the rug or hidden by the people going through it themselves. There is not a person on this planet that can tell me that they've never hurt before. I thank Jaime and the rest of the TWLOHA staff for their love and support. The strength different individuals have found in the cause is powerful and inspiring.
In a time when I my best friend was falling to pieces and my friend and I had finally gotten her help I read these words, "Love is a pretty good thing for people to see [Jaime Tworkowski- twloha.com]."
If a friend comes to you about their depression or struggles with self-injury, they're asking for help. They're probably scared out of their minds about it and have contemplated doing so for a long time. They obviously trust you. Maybe you don't know what to say to comfort them but what they're really looking for is reason to live. Get help. Refer them to a guidance counsler or a hotline or even the twloha website, anything. We have to be here for one another.