Suicide. Addiction. Self-Injury. Depression.
Dirty words, every one of ‘em. But they describe the daily struggles and afflictions that affect tens of millions of Americans.
So, what does this have to do with surfing? Everything. Because members of our own tight-knit community suffer from these brutal battles every day and are crying out for help or are suffering under the stigma that blankets mental illness and addiction. In fact, too many surfer kids in several of our own beach communities have committed suicide and the war is on to save the rest. I know, because I’m involved in the fight on a first hand basis and am spurred on by the pain I still feel 32 years after losing my brother, Bill, to suicide. But there’s hope.
To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit organization that has burst onto the music and surfing scenes with their positive message of eradicating the stigmas surrounding mental illness, addiction and suicide and providing resources for those in need. They are well-organized, well-spoken and have a natural, poetic voice that strips all the bs away to deliver a solid message. If you do anything, check out their site. It’s dynamic, energized, robust and graphically hot.
I had the opportunity to speak to Jamie Tworkowski-Founder/Creative Director-to learn more about the organization, its humble beginnings, its sponsorship of 2001 ASP World Champ, CJ Hobgood, and what it strives for going forward. Read on for our conversation and thank God for people like Jamie, CJ and the whole TWLOHA team.
**By the way, like the story on facebook and we’ll put your name in a hat for one of the rad “Hope Goes Surfing” t-shirts.**
TSV: I know that TWLOHA started initially to raise money for a friend (Renee) to attend rehab, but when did the organization officially start?
Jamie: It was a gradual process. I met Renee in 2006 in February, I wrote the story in March and I left my job at Hurley in July. That first year we were under the umbrella of another charity, so we had a kind of big brother to lean on. Then…we had the choice to go out on our own…
TSV: What was the other charity?
Jamie: Fireproof Ministries. They were based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Craig Gross is the founder there and he became a friend. They were doing something significant and there was a lot of common ground, so I just reached out to him. Ended up moving into his basement, following him around and asking him a million questions for about a month. Then at that point, he invited us under his umbrella and we were able to get his wisdom and guidance and so that seemed like a good place to start.
TSV: I’ve worked with several other long-time established suicide prevention organizations, so I wanted to ask why you haven’t partnered with them or joined forces?
Jamie: I feel like we’re doing something very different from them. I’ve met some folks that work specifically in the realm of suicide prevention and they’ve been very complimentary about the fact that we’re reaching an audience and doing something that they can’t do. Likewise, we believe in the work that they do and…those that provide counseling and treatment. We’re really trying to serve as the bridge to the resources where the people can get help and we believe that the people we have access too or the people that knock on our door, metaphorically speaking, are not knocking on the doors of treatment or counseling. So, we’re in a neat position to try to reach people where they are and really try to breakdown the stigma that people can’t talk about these things…
TSV: And is it typically younger people that you’re gearing towards?
Jamie: Well, predominantly we’re reaching young people, but we know these are issues that affect people of all ages and all over the world.
TSV: So, how did the sponsorship of CJ Hobgood [2001 ASP World Surfing Champ] come about?
Jamie: Oh, he’s one of my best friends. We graduated high school together and we have a friendship that goes back a lot of years. Where it all started [with TWLOHA] was back in December of 2010. He didn’t have a major sponsor and he asked if I’d send him some shirts and stickers, so that he could wear the shirts and put the stickers on his board. And that was super-exciting and we started talking about how we could keep this going, because his thinking was he’d do that ‘til he got a major sponsor. And then in the last year, we became more of a secondary sponsor, but we just really believed in it and that he provided us with the vehicle to bring our message to the surfing community and that was really personal for me. Then, when we won the $1 million in December at the American Giving Awards, we realized that we had this opportunity to really commit to it and become his primary sponsor. And not just to sponsor him, but to also run ads and get our message to the surfing community.
And it’s been a brave move for CJ, because if he surfed for a big surf company, nobody would ask questions. But for him having our sticker on his board, he’s got to answer questions [about TWLOHA] a bunch of times every day, just explaining what the logo means, what the acronym means. To me, it’s a very special thing that he’s up for that, for flying our flag and having those conversations.
TSV: Why the surfing community? Because it’s personal to you…?
Jamie: Just because we have relationships there. With just CJ alone, we have a lot of relationships. Plus, before this, I worked for Hurley and Quiksilver and it’s kind of all I’ve ever known with work and relationships. [For example] Kelly Slater’s a good friend. So, it wasn’t like a random thing, like ‘hey let’s go after baseball or hockey’… it just felt like with surfing we had the opportunity because of our connections and my past. We had the chance to come out of nowhere and reach a lot of people. I think for me too that when Andy Irons died—not knowing all the details of his death—knowing about his life and his struggles was kind of what sealed the deal for me because I felt like people weren’t talking about this stuff.
TSV: You’ve also got a good presence in the music industry.
Jamie: Yeah…going back to the very beginning, the charity wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I figured we’d sell a couple hundred t-shirts and help our friend. But because of the support of the bands, word just got out like wildfire, not only from fans of the bands, but also from other bands who wanted to get involved and wear the shirts. We just saw so much generosity and support from festivals we got to be a part of and bands that wanted to take us on tour…so we really rode that wave for the first few years. Then when we got more organized and had grown, we stepped back and thought how can we go beyond music and we’ve now done more on the internet and college campuses, high schools. Then surfing just felt like a natural thing.
TSV: I can tell you that suicide prevention is not easy to work within. It’s heart-breaking and, many times, very hard. So, why are you taking this on? It has to go beyond Renee.
Jamie: In a way, because it happened by accident and wasn’t part of this big visionary thing, it happened so fast…Part of it is very heavy…but we see both sides. We see the worst of it—we run into people who know what it’s like to have lost someone to suicide, like you have. But we also meet people who say ‘I’m still alive because of the work you’ve been doing’. I think it’s on behalf of those extremes that we keep going.
TSV: So, what’s next?
Jamie: We definitely didn’t have a 5 year plan…expecting what things would look like. So much of our story has been these surprising open doors and our relationships. I think we’ve surprised a lot of people because we see it more as a creative project than something with a corporate strategy and corporate language. My hope is to continue to run in a lot of directions at once, to have diversity with the whole thing [such as the music, surfing, college campuses, high school campaign ‘Storytellers’]. I hope to continue to get better and better at doing those things, to break the silence on these issues [suicide, addiction, self-injury, depression], to invite more people into the conversation. I think the big picture is to ask ‘what do you do with your pain?’ Behind addiction, depression, self-injury and suicide is the answer to the question, ‘how do you respond to the things you wish were different in your life?’ That’s such a broad subject that there’s a lot of freedom and room for us to be creative.
TSV: Well, from someone who’s worked in all different capacities in the field, I think you guys really get it. You really understand how to talk about depression, addiction, suicide. The site is incredible. You just really nail it.
Jamie: Thank you, man. We value language and design and feel like so much of it is trying to invite people into conversations that they feel they can’t talk about. Our language is not often clinical and we’re not doctors. While we do use counselors and often lean on them, we try to use conversational-poetic-language and maybe at times that’s different than what the experts often use.
TSV: Well, thank you so much for all your time today and your work with the organization. I appreciate it all, as I know do a lot of people out there.
Jamie: Thank you for your time.
For more information on To Write Love on Her Arms check out their website!