Founder Jamie Tworkowski talks about the origins of To Write Love on Her Arms, its mission of presenting hope to those struggling with depression, how its been able to partner and resonate with the music community, and what it has planned for the future.
What exactly is To Write Love on Her Arms and what would you define its mission as?
TWLOHA is a non-profit organization that desires to be a movement of people dedicated to presenting hope and help to those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. We exist to encourage, inform, inspire and also to fund treatment and recovery around the world.
Where did the idea of TWLOHA originate and what were its original intentions?
It originated as a written story (called “To Write Love on Her Arms”) and an attempt to help one girl who was struggling with these issues. We started selling shirts to try to pay for her treatment.
How were you first able to get the organization off the ground?
We started selling T-shirts among our community in Orlando. The guys from Switchfoot and Anberlin started wearing them. I made a MySpace page. Everything has grown from that.
Is there any special significance behind the name To Write Love on Her Arms?
Renee wrote the word FUCK-UP across her arm with a razor blade a few hours after I met her. “TWLOHA” was a goal – the idea of believing something better for her life. Love, healing, freedom, change, etc.
What goes into running TWLOHA and how many people are involved in its everyday activities?
I just got back from about a month of travel in the U.K. and Australia – mostly opportunities to speak and meet with young people and folks working with young people in those places. I spoke four times in California last week. We have our hands in everything from MySpace to Facebook to designing a new website to me speaking every night on Switchfoot’s U.S. Tour, which starts next week, and then we’re planning to have a big presence on Warped Tour this summer. We get opportunities to speak at concerts, universities, churches, festivals, etc. I focus on the creative – writing, speaking, design and key decisions related to leading our team. We have three full-time staff, three full-time interns, and during Spring Break we have an extra 15-20 guest interns per week – new friends from around the country, and a couple from beyond. We also have volunteers and a street team. They help us promote TWLOHA and they help us with events as well.
What happens with the money you receive from donations, merch sales, etc.?
It funds the work we do via events, projects, campaigns, staff, interns, office and intern house, travel, etc. And at least 30% of what comes in goes directly to treatment and recovery.
I understand you previously enjoyed a successful position at Hurley. What made you decide to leave and was it difficult to take that leap of faith?
I left because TWLOHA seemed like an opportunity to live with purpose, a chance to bring my heart to work. It was hard because it was uncertain, but I made the right decision.
Have you ever personally struggled with depression? If so, how were you able to overcome it?
Yes. I would say I still do. Counseling and community have helped a lot. By community, I mean friends and family – honest conversation. We were not meant to walk through life alone. We need other people.
What advice do you offer to someone who is currently battling depression?
You’re not alone. Don’t be alone. Talk to someone. Tell a friend. Talk to a counselor.
I first heard about TWLOHA last year on the Anberlin tour, and it seems it has expanded a lot since then. How have you been able to accomplish this?
Well, it’s just been people telling people. And then Anberlin is a great example of the support we’ve seen from the music community. Hopefully, the way we’re doing things has something to do with it as well – these issues are things people don’t talk about. We’re trying to change that, and we’re trying to do it in a way that is inviting, honest, poetic, tasteful and creative.
TWLOHA has really been embraced by the music community. Why do you think that is?
We believe music is unique and important in its ability to move people. Music plays a part in the original story and everything that’s happened since. We have some great friends that make music we believe in. It means a lot that some of our favorite artists believe in the work we’re doing.
What is it like talking at concerts and other events? Does it come naturally to you? Do you ever get nervous talking to large groups of people about such a personal and serious subject matter?
I used to get nervous but I’d say I’m a lot more comfortable now. It’s actually easier to speak to large groups vs. small, in my opinion. 20 is harder than 2,000. Hard to explain but that’s how it is for me. The whole thing is a privilege – to get the chance to talk about things that people tend to ignore and avoid, and the chance to say that we believe hope is real.
While TWLOHA isn’t a Christian organization, there are definitely elements of that in it. What are your thoughts on Christianity and how does it relate (if at all) to TWLOHA?
I just feel like the word “Christian” is one that’s been hugely abused and misrepresented over the years. I knew early on that we were going to have to choose our battles, and so the one I wanted to put first was that we would try to be something inviting to all people, something that meets people where they are, as they are. This is also what I find when I read or hear about the life of Jesus. He accepted people. He fixed things. I believe God is still in the business of redemption. I believe the Church has an important part to play in that. I like that we get to be active on both sides of the Church walls.
Are there any plans to somehow get the political front involved with the organization and help in raising awareness?
Yes, my best friend Byron Cutrer is our Director of Communications and he just got back from D.C. We’re starting to do a lot of work with Hopeline (1-800-SUICIDE) there. Reese Butler from Hopeline has been a huge help to us – teaching us a lot. We understand that D.C. is an important place, and we want to begin to invite our audience to use its collective voice to be active in letting our nation’s leaders know that these issues matter. We think these issues matter because we think people matter.
I imagine you hear about many depressing and sad experiences through TWLOHA. How do you keep from getting discouraged by them, especially with something like Casey Calvert’s passing, and maintain a positive attitude?
Because we hear from so many people who are finding hope and help because of what we’re doing. People stepping into counseling or treatment – or simply community – for the first time. That keeps us (and me) going.
Besides Renee, are there any other TWLOHA related stories that have left a deep impression on you?
I had a conversation with a guy in England. He had slept with his best friend – a girl, and then they didn’t talk for almost a month. I got the sense it was intense. They didn’t know how to process it. It obviously changed their friendship. One night, she finally called and asked him to come over. He had to work and so he couldn’t see her. He found out the next day that this girl had taken her life. And then he found out she’d been pregnant with his baby. His favorite band was playing in the next room and he never even got up to see them. We talked for an hour – about the questions he lives with, about how much counseling has helped. It’s a conversation I’ll never forget.
Speaking of Renee, how is she doing today and does she work with TWLOHA at all?
She’s doing really well – she recently celebrated two years of sobriety. She is in school in Central Florida. She’s done some speaking (for us) over the last few months. We’re super proud of her. We’re just trying to do our best to continue to put her recovery first. Renee is hugely talented as a communicator, and I believe she’ll be telling her story and moving people with words for the rest of her life.
Are there any specific bands/books/films that have personally had a big impact on you and on TWLOHA’s outlook?
A book called Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller changed a lot of things for me. Made me want to write, gave me permission to be honest, taught me a lot about community. And then I would say the music of U2 and Switchfoot. Those bands inspire me deeply and both are led by frontmen who have showed me that enormous good things can happen between songs as well. Basically, those guys and their songs help me believe it’s possible to change the world.
You’re currently on tour with Switchfoot (or will be soon) and you’ve been friends with the guys for quite a while. How exciting is it to finally go on the road with them?
It means a lot as Jon Foreman was literally the first person ever to wear one of our shirts. I was with him when we opened the first box of shirts – at a sold out show in South Florida. So as a band, they were the first to share the stage, and then beyond that, they have taught me a lot about community and family.
What are going to be doing once the tour is over and do you already have plans for the remainder of the year?
Well, hopefully I’ll get a little break after the tour. I need to surf now and then to stay healthy. As for TWLOHA, we’ll be launching our new website (twloha.com), focusing on Warped Tour this summer, as well as summer internships, and then some new campaigns and speaking opportunities in the fall. I’m writing a book and we’re also working on a compilation CD as well.
Now that the organization has been around for a couple of years, what are your thoughts on how things have progressed thus far? Did you ever imagine TWLOHA would be as big as it is today and able to accomplish so much?
I’m excited and proud of how far we’ve come, but I also feel like we’re just getting started. We’ve got our hands in a few things at once but we’re really just taking our first steps in a lot of these directions. Obviously, I couldn’t have told you we would grow the way we have. But at the same time, I knew this could be something special right away. I saw how Renee’s story affected 50 people, and I had to guess it might have that same affect on 50,000. This is pain and hope. This is where people live.
What are the future goals and ambitions for TWLOHA? Where would you like to see the organization in five years?
Hopefully continuing to do this work in the way that we’ve begun – always aiming to be inclusive, tasteful, poetic, creative, etc. I hope that we’ll continue to be brave in how we do things and in bringing this conversation to the surface. I think speaking and touring will continue to be part of it. We believe that great things are possible in those settings, and we love adding music to the mix. Hopefully we’ll be funding treatment on a bigger scale, active in Washington on a bigger scale, active globally on a bigger scale.
What’s the one thing you think could be done that would change the world the most?
People really grasping what is possible with this word “love.” It is not small. It is not cheap. When it’s lived out, it has the power to change.
How can someone get involved with or support TWLOHA?
Donate online, buy a shirt, join the street team, tell a friend, keep an eye on the websites. More than anything, learn what it means to love people who are hurting.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
You’re not alone. Depression is treatable. We know that pain is real but we believe some things in the face of that – that wisdom is real, medicine is real. More than anything, that hope and help are real. Rescue is possible.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press