For 10 years, the nonprofit organization To Write Love on Her Arms has impacted the lives of people in need nationwide. Founded by Jamie Tworkowski, who attended Satellite High School, TWLOHA (which rhymes with "aloha") aims to help those struggling with depression, addiction and self-injury.
Tworkowski is a bestselling author of If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For, and the movie To Write Love on Her Arms starring Kat Dennings and Chad Michael Murray as Tworkowski is loosely based on TWLOHA's global movement.
"Our founder, Jamie Tworkowski, didn’t set out to start a nonprofit organization. All he wanted to do was help a friend and tell her story," the organization's website states. "When Jamie met Renee Yohe, she was struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and suicidal thoughts. He wrote about the five days he spent with her before she entered a treatment center, and he sold T-shirts to help cover the cost. When she entered treatment, he posted the story on MySpace to give it a home. The name of the story was 'To Write Love on Her Arms.'”
The organization's official 10-year anniversary is this Wednesday, March 30. To celebrate, a series of "TWLOHA turns 10" events will take place in the coming weeks in Central Florida and beyond. They include a show at House of Blues on April 2.
Later this month, TWLOHA will host its fourth annual Run for It 5K in Satellite Beach on April 16.
Mike Nunez of Florida Today spoke with Tworkowski about the organization, its mission and the future, So let’s “Shake, Rattle & Know”: Jamie Tworkowski
Florida Today: Did you ever imagine that you would be celebrating the organization’s 10th anniversary when you first started?
Tworkowski: When we started I didn’t know if we would be celebrating a 6-month anniversary or even a year. I didn’t even know if it would warrant one person working full-time on it. We didn’t go into it with a 5-year or 10-year plan. There have been so many surprises along the way and more great things have happened than our team could have ever imagined. I am very thankful that we have been able to do meaningful work in something I believe in.
Florida Today: I have heard you say you want TWLOHA to show people that it is OK to ask for help. Why do you feel so many young people are afraid to admit they need help and often too afraid to ask for it?
Tworkowski: It’s not exclusive to young people. In fact, often times as people get older and more set in their ways they won’t reach out for help. I guess the one word that sticks out is "stigma." There is a certain stigma that comes with mental health issues. There are a lot of bad ideas about what mental illness is and a lot of misinformation. Suicide, addiction and depression are often misunderstood. We want people to feel that they can talk about, and they don’t have to keep it a secret. I want people to know they aren’t walking through it alone. Two out of every three people with mental health issues don’t get help, but we want them to know it’s OK to talk about it.
Florida Today: What brought you to Brevard?
Tworkowski: My family moved here when I was 5 years old, so I had no say in the matter. I have traveled a lot and lived in New York for a while, but this (Brevard) is home to me. My whole family is involved in the organization; my mom and my sisters. This is also where the whole TWLOHA story began. We love being here and we love other places, too. Brevard is a great place, and we want to inspire people and show people we started here and we stayed here.
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Florida Today: Obviously your success stories are celebrated, but how hard is it to not let the ones that got away eat at you?
Tworkowski: It is OK to let those stories stay with you, too. It serves as a reminder that not every story has a happy ending. Just a while back I met a girl who had a little boy with her and she came up to me and thanked me for the work we did. The young child had lost his mom to suicide and her sister, who I was talking to, was raising him now. That really messed us up, and you can’t let go of something like that. It takes both ends of the story to remind us why we do what we do. It was harder in the beginning because we didn’t understand as much, but we taught ourselves that it is OK to cry, and it is OK to be emotional, because those things remind us of what is at stake.
Florida Today: Throughout your history you have used music as a way of bringing your message to people nationwide. What made you go in that direction with the organization?
Tworkowski: Well, that goes back to our beginning and the story of Renee. Out of the five days we spent with Renee, we took her to concerts and were around music. A lot of musicians were our first supporters, so it seemed like a natural fit with our story and our journey. Music has the ability to be honest and gives the listener permission to be honest, too.
Florida Today: Your logo and mission went viral before there even was a “viral.” What was your key to success in those early years?
Tworkowski: It all started out so simple, and we had a MySpace back then. The story of Renee went viral and so did the T-shirts. The T-shirts started having people ask questions, and they were moved by what they saw. To Write Love on Her Arms was originally just the name of the story I wrote about Renee, but it made for a great looking shirt and that carried us to where we are today.
Florida Today: What is one goal you still have for the organization that you have yet to accomplish?
Tworkowski: We meet people all the time that say they are still alive because of the work we do, or that they got help because of us. That in itself is a goal that we want to keep going. Everything we do, whether it is online or through our programs has the same end goal. We want to continue to connect with people. I guess if we could have our way we would help end that stigma that exists and have a world where people are OK being honest with mental health issues. We hope that someday mental illnesses are talked about no differently than the flu, cancer or even a broken leg. We want people to understand that those with mental health issues are just as fragile.
Florida Today: How can people get involved and help others through TWLOHA?
Tworkowski: There is an entire section of our website dedicated to how people can get involved. I guess that’s the best answer. Whether it is as small as buying a T-shirt to show support or as big as interning with us, there are many ways to help. There are lots of ways to get involved. It’s about people using whatever influence they have to introduce friends to our organization and give us the opportunity to grow. Online, word of mouth and fundraising all help us. Just connecting with people who care makes a difference.
What: TWLOHA turns 10, an evening of songs, conversation and hope, featuring Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Matt Wertz and Renee Yohe (Bearcat) and spoken word poets Sierra DeMulder and Tanya Ingram
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, April 2
Where: House of Blues, 1490 Buena Vista Drive, Orlando
Cost: Admission is $22.
Extra: The fourth annual Run for It 5K kicks off at 8 a.m. April 16 at the David R. Schechter Center, 1089 South Patrick Drive, Satellite Beach. Cost to register before April 15 is $25 per runner or $22 per member if you're part of a four-person team; cost to register day-of is $40 per runner, $27 per member. Backwater in downtown Melbourne will host a follow-up pancake breakfast. Meal tickets for that are $5. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit twloha.com.