Back in March I had the honor of sitting down with To Write Love On Her Arms at SXSW to discuss how the organization was started, the motion picture that was made about the organization, and where To Write Love On Her Arms is heading in the future.
Winfield: For those who may not know, could you explain how To Write Love On Her Arms started back in 2006?
Chad [TWLOHA]: In February 2006, there was a young woman by the name of Renee who was battling a drug addiction and had a lot of issues with depression and self-injury. She opted to seek help for her drug addiction and on the first day that she tried to enter treatment they actually turned her away due to the drugs that were in her system. They didn’t have a detox unit and they said ‘to come back in five days if you can stay sober’. So at that point a guy named Jamie and a couple of his friends took her in for those five days and really just did all they could to let her know that this road of recovery that she was about to go on, she wasn’t going to be travelling alone, that she had people in her corner, that she had people that were going to be cheering for her throughout this process. On the eve before she entered treatment successfully, Jamie said ‘you know how would you feel about sharing your story with someone?’ She said ‘if one person can be affected positively by my experience then there’s been a purpose for all this pain’. So from there Renee entered treatment and Jamie decided to write a story about those five days that he spent with her and he called it To Write Love On Her Arms. He put the story on Myspace, he printed up some t-shirts to sell to help offset the cost of her medical bills, and from there folks started wearing the t-shirts, bands started wearing them, and people started to check out the story online. They said that ‘this story sounds a lot like some people in my life like, my parents, my siblings, or myself, is there hope for me? Is there help for me as well?’ So To Write Love On Her Arms kind of emerged there as the grassroots of the organization and now we exist to present hope and help for anyone struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. Really if we could be anything we’ll be a bridge that will connect people looking for help with that help.
Winfield: How has To Write Love On Her Arms grown and transformed during the last 6 years?
Chad: Yeah, it’s kind of changed but it’s kind of stayed the same, you know? We still kind of go at this not through the lens of how should a non-profit business work, but in ways of how can we tell a story? How can we affect people that we encounter everyday? And beyond that, how can we encounter more people? It’s never really been about business models for us, it’s been about creativity and it’s been about meeting people where they are. So really while it’s morphed and gotten a little bigger, that part has still stayed very much the same. Likewise, this started as one person’s story, as Renee’s story, and we’re still very much about individual stories. We never want to forsake the fact that Renee is not necessarily unique in what she was struggling with; that there’s so many people that have that same story and we want to treat them not as the next person in line but we want to get to know their name, we want to know what makes them tick, we want to know their fears and their dreams, we want how we can help them as a person. So we’re still very much about one story at a time kind of mentality. From emails to big events like SXSW we can’t wait to hear more and more stories like that.
Winfield: To Write Love On Her Arms’ story is becoming a film called “Renee”. What was the process like for you working with actors and writers to try to get the story told as honestly as possible?
Chad: Yeah, that’s kind of been a unique project, mainly in the fact that it’s not our movie. We didn’t produce it, we didn’t write it; we’ve been there the entire time because these are our friends and Renee’s story being told. We want to stand by our friend in that. It’s been Renee’s team that’s kind of spearheaded this into a movie and they’re very much our friends and family. So the entire process has been fun for us. It’s been pretty low stress in that we get to be a bit on the outside looking in but still have one foot in the door. At the end of the day this is a story about Renee’s life, and clearly To Write Love takes a role in that but it would be off and incorrect to say that this is a movie about To Write Love On Her Arms. Renee has always been, her identity has always been way more than the organization. So the kind of jist of the movie is what does it look like to have someone that’s really experienced some pain in their life finds hope and finds help; and that is To Write Love’s story and again whether it’s being told through the viewpoint of Renee or someone else it’s definitely a project that we stand behind. We’re so excited about it. It actually just premiered last week in Omaha and we’re so excited to see where it’s gonna go from there.
Winfield: How does it feel when people come up to you and tell you that To Write Love On Her Arms saved their life or one of their friend’s lives?
Chad: It’s one of the most humbling experiences ever, because at the end of it, we’re not counselors and we’re not medical professionals or help professionals. We’re just people trying to tell you that your life is important, that your story matters, and that you deserve to have people in your life to experience this with you. The fact that someone can say that To Write Love saved their life, it kind of begs the bigger question what part of To Write Love saved your life? It could be as simple as someone was wearing a To Write Love On Her Arms shirt at a moment of crisis and gave that person a hug and somehow we get the credit for it. At the end of it we’re nothing without our supporters. Our supporters have helped us do amazing things from winning money to carrying our message forward and to countries that we’ve never been to before. At the heart of it, whenever someone says To Write Love saved their life, in my mind it’s kind of our supporters that carry our banner that are the most operative people in that. Of course it feels so good to hear that, not that we made a difference in someone’s life, but that person’s life is continuing. That’s where the biggest joy is; that when everything is telling you to give up, having the strength and the courage to wake up one more day. We just love those stories.
Winfield: How would you like to see To Write Love On Her Arms grow more in the future?
Chad: Yeah, clearly, we would love to be heavily in places that aren’t just American. These aren’t white, middle class American problems. These aren’t “emo” issues. These can’t be defined by genres of music or by style of clothes or by geography. These are issues of being human. So we want to be wherever these issues exist, which is everywhere. Beyond that, we would love to see people continuing to be courageous and bold and creative in finding ways to help out those around us. These issues existed long before us and they’re going to exist long after us. So if we can, at the very least, inspire people to care more for each other, then that would be in a sense, mission accomplished.