Josh Moore, Aaron Moore and i had a great night at Greenville College in Illinois two weeks ago. First event we’ve done together in a while and it got us excited for this east coast tour that we’re on now. The GC folks were kind hosts and i was happy to say yes when they asked if i might answer some questions so that their community could learn a little more about TWLOHA. i wanted to share the conversation here as well:
GC: Can you give me an overview of TWLOHA? How it started? What’s the purpose? Who is TWLOHA?
JT: “To Write Love on Her Arms” began in 2006 as a written story and an attempt to help a friend. We made a MySpace page and started selling t-shirts as a way to help pay for our friend’s drug treatment. The organization was born from the response to those things. Today, we’re a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. We exist to encourage, inspire, inform and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery. In the last two years, our team has responded to 80,000 messages and those messages have come from 40 different countries.
I’ll give you two answers for “Who is TWLOHA?”
- TWLOHA is a small team of staff and volunteers based in Cocoa, Florida.
- TWLOHA is a worldwide movement of young people committed to hope, help, conversation and community.
GC: Who is TWLOHA aimed toward?
JT: Our message has spread quickly through MySpace, Facebook and the music community, so a lot of our audience is young. That said, we know that the issues we talk about are issues that affect people of all ages all over the world, so I think the best answer is simply “people”. We’re trying to create something inviting, something that meets people where they are, as they are.
GC: This story started with Renee’s story. (See www.TWLOHA.com for the background information.) Was she the first person who raised your awareness to these types of issues and gave a “face and a name and realness” to the things people struggle with?
JT: Renee was the first in terms of addiction and self-injury. There were other people in my life (prior to Renee) who struggled with depression. I lost my friend Zeke to suicide about a month before I met Renee.
GC: How does TWLOHA invest in lives?
JT: We try to create hope and point to help and we do that through words especially. Through our blog and other website content, through the messages we read and respond to, through creative campaigns and projects, through opportunities to speak and lead discussions at universities, concerts, churches and other events. We also invest financially in treatment and recovery.
JT: Through the things I just mentioned mainly. As for treatment, we give to Hopeline (1-800-SUICIDE), Teen Challenge, Mercy Ministries, S.A.F.E. Alternatives, KidsHelp in Australia. We also invest in counseling in central Florida.
GC: What has the response been to TWLOHA?
JT: Well, since 2006, we’ve responded to 80,000 messages and those messages have come from 40 different countries. Between MySpace and Facebook, we have the largest audience of any non-profit (roughly 500,000). People have been incredibly kind and supportive. We feel like the issues we talk about are important because they affect people all over the world. We hear from so many people talking about these things for the first time, people asking for help, people asking how they can help their friends.
GC: Have you come up against any opposition? What kind? How do you “battle” that?
JT: We’ve grown fast and we live in a day where some people are ignorant and some people are rude and they want to see things fall as fast as they rise. Plus we’re a non-profit, so people are quick to ask questions, or simply to doubt that something that looks like a good thing might actually be a good thing. We have to explain things and provide answers and then, at a certain point, we just have to leave it there and walk away. You’re not going to please everyone, especially when you try to do something in a way that’s unique. A lot of people offer opinions from the sidelines and we’re trying to invite people to take the field.
GC: What is the goal/aim of TWLOHA? Do you set year to year goals? What does the “big picture” goal look like?
JT: The goal is to continue to talk about these issues, and to continue to invite people into a conversation about pain, hope, help and community. We’re trying to do that in a way that is honest, creative, poetic and bold. We’re also trying to fund treatment and lower the suicide rate worldwide. More than anything, we want people to know they’re not alone, that their story matters, and that hope and help are real and possible.
GC: The T-shirts you sell are really cool and seem to be the main form of “advertisement” and way to get people asking questions. However, they could also become more of just a “trend” and a “band wagon” type of thing in some places – have you seen that? Is that ok with your TWLOHA crew?
JT: Like a lot of people, I started to care and pay attention to Africa because Bono started talking about Africa. So “cool” isn’t necessarily the enemy of good or change. We can’t control who buys our shirts and we can’t know why each person would choose to wear one of ours shirts, but we believe in the work that we’re doing and we’ve heard countless stories of meaningful conversations sparked by people wearing TWLOHA shirts. We try to focus on the heart of the matter and our hope is that people will join us in that.
GC: Why is “going national” and visiting campuses and being a part of concert tours an important thing for TWLOHA?
JT: These are issues that affect people, and these are issues that people don’t talk about. So we believe it’s powerful to bring this conversation to people, and to do that by meeting people where they are. We have seen the best of the internet and we will continue to focus and invest online, but nothing beats being in a room with someone, looking them in the eye, having a conversation…
GC: Am I correct that TWLOHA serves as a bridge for hurting people and organizations that can help? How do you do that?
JT: Yes, I would say that’s part of what we do. We respond to messages and emails, we point people to the FIND HELP and FACTS section of our site, as well as other resources online. The first step to recovery is the one most people never take, so in my opinion, the best of what we do is we help people take that first step. Encouragement is huge. Hope is huge. Words are powerful. We offer those things and we do our best to point to other people and places where needs are being met.
GC: Last night (October 27, 2008) during your time at GC and throughout your website you talk a lot about “honesty” and “living an honest life”, what does all of that mean? Can you unpack that further?
JT: Depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide are things a lot of people live with, but few people talk about. The bigger picture is pain and questions. We can all relate to pain and questions, but hardly anyone talks about those things. So we’re trying to tell people that it’s okay to be honest. It’s essential. We need other people. We need people we can be honest with, people who actually know us and walk through life with us. We believe in community and we believe that counseling and treatment can be a powerful extension (or unique expression) of community.
GC: In your mind and in a “best case scenario” world, what does it look like to live honestly in community? Can you unpack a bit more what you mean by “community” and what that looks like?
JT: I don’t think there’s a formula. I just believe we were made to love and be loved, and to know and be known. So I think it starts there and I think those things happen in relationship. I believe that conversation is part of relationship, part of knowing someone, part of friendship. Commitment, compassion and honesty would be in the mix as well. We need people asking us questions and meeting us in our questions, and we should be doing the same for the people we care about. I think [community] is honest relationships, people living life with other people, walking through the hard stuff and the good stuff.
GC: TWLOHA does not “brand” itself as a Christian Organization, which I totally understand, but in that how do you speak truth into the lives of the people you hear from? Do you introduce scripture? Do you introduce Jesus? Spiritual principles? Prayer?
JT: I’ve heard it said that “All truth is God’s truth.” We’re trying to communicate truth, but with that we’re trying to meet people where they are, as they are. We’re not trying to shove Jesus down people’s throats. The Church has done a really poor job of that in my opinion. The Church has made a mess and offended a lot of people “in the name of God.” The Church has been quick with it’s answers and slow to meet people in the questions. Jesus talked a lot about loving people, and He seemed to care about people and their needs. We’re trying to learn what it means to love people, and we’re trying to meet needs. The language of what I believe is super obvious in the story that I wrote. I don’t feel the need to use that language every time I stand on a stage or write a blog or have a conversation. I’m okay with a patient process. I’m not selling used cars.
GC: Why do you travel to colleges and universities with this conversation? Why that group?
JT: Because we know that these issues exist in people in those places. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among college students. And I think we go there also because college students tend to be open-minded and willing to engage this conversation. Beyond all of that, the average age of someone on our team is roughly 25. We like being around college students. We like staying up late.
GC: Why is this type of organization so important? And why now?
JT: Now is always the most interesting time. We believe that this work matters because these issues affect people and we believe that people matter. We believe that we have the opportunity to see lives changed and saved. I can’t imagine anything more important or anything I’d rather be apart of.
GC: TWLOHA is paired with music in most venues, how do you see that partnership being beneficial?
JT: We believe that music is powerful in it’s ability to move people, to remind us we’re alive, to remind us it’s okay to scream or cry or celebrate or ask questions. Music causes us to feel. We think all of that is pretty incredible and it seems that songs can be like friends when things are difficult.
GC: Now that you have been out from under the umbrella of a larger ministry for one year, do you have any people or organizations that hold TWLOHA accountable?
JT: Yes. We have a Board of Directors and several advisors beyond that. We work with accountants and lawyers. We have relationships with the organizations that we work with, especially Reese Butler at Hopeline. Beyond that, we have a community of friends and family – people who care about us as an organization and as individuals. These are people who want the best for TWLOHA, and for our team as individuals. We invite their opinions, feedback, questions, etc. We invite them into key decisions. Beyond all of that, we’re accountable to the I.R.S.
GC: Do you have anything to add in closing?
JT: We just want people to know they’re not alone. We’re all in this together. Your story is important. You matter. You are loved.