In 2006 Jamie Tworkowski published a blog on MySpace and printed a few t-shirts to sell to help fund his friend’s treatment for depression, self harm and addiction at a recovery centre. Ten years down the line, he now heads up To Write Love On Her Arms, a non-profit that reaches people worldwide.
So how did one man turn a few hundred words into a charity that’s affected millions of people’s lives? I had a chat with him to find out…
I first discovered To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) 10 years ago through various bands that I was listening to (Tworkowski lists numerous artists among his friends, including the likes of Paramore and Switchfoot, who 15-year-old me couldn’t get enough of) so I feel like I’ve been a very small part of the TWLOHA story over the years. But how did it all grow from that one blog post?
“I've definitely told people that on a certain level I wrote it for me, I wrote it to try to remember the experience and the conversations I had with Renee,” Tworkowski says. “I didn't want to forget. And I definitely think I wrote it for her as well, to try to honour her.
“Obviously there was the hope that some other people could be encouraged for it, but I didn't write for a blog or a website or a magazine so there was no reason to think it would get out in a big way.”
But get out, it did. Perhaps one of the turning points in the story comes with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot going on stage in a TWLOHA shirt in March 2006. “I had told Jon a little bit about meeting this new friend and what she was dealing with and the idea of selling some t-shirts as a way of trying to pay for her treatment,” Tworkowski explains. “He may have read the story at that point as well so he asked if he could wear a shirt that night on stage. It was just this very simple thing at the time, it was just an attempt to tell a story and try and help one friend.
Really, he was just supporting his friend - that being me. He just wore the shirt on stage and I think there were maybe 3,000 people there that night and he just mentioned it at one point between songs.”
But when he got home that night, he was overwhelmed by the number of comments and messages there were on the MySpace page. “That really is what allowed me to see and understand that suddenly it was much bigger than one story and bigger than one person's story because all of these people in different ways could relate to what Renee had lived through – and was still living through – and I think it gave people permission to be honest about their struggles and their stories,” he says.
So he started to reply to the messages, a little overwhelmed as he wasn’t a counsellor or a mental health expert, he was just someone trying to help a friend. But he replied to each and every single message – something that TWLOHA still does, even though the organisation has grown hugely since those first days.
“The message is the same and a lot of the things that we hear from people and the messages that we respond to are not so different from the ones that were coming at the very beginning,” Tworkowski says. “We just get to cover a lot more ground and bring our message to a lot more people because we have a team and we've been able to get organised over the years.”
One of the highlights for TWLOHA over the last decade was, of course, winning $1million funding at the American Giving Awards. But, although significant, it’s not the money that made the evening for Tworkowski, instead it was the opportunity to speak for 60 seconds at an event that was being shown on national television in the US. “That was something that was this incredible moment that we couldn’t have even dreamed up,” he says.
But it’s not just those big moments that make it worthwhile. “I get to meet people who say that they're still alive because of the work that we do - maybe they read something on our website, maybe they heard something at a school or a concert, maybe they picked up a card on the Warped Tour and they ended up getting help and choosing to stay alive,” Tworkowski explains his other highlight from the last decade. “No matter how big it gets, or how big our audience gets, it’s just made up of individuals and it’s important to remember that.”
So what will the next 10 years look like for TWLOHA? Not even Tworkowski knows that yet. “I definitely did not have a five year plan, or a 10 year plan. I’m not really wired that way,” he admits. “I think I wake up and treat it more like a creative project – maybe almost something like a band – where we just want to continue and to create and to communicate.”