Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love On Her Arms, spreads message of “love” to UNC-CH

BY SARAH BROWN

Seven years ago, Jamie Tworkowski discovered that one simple four-letter word could have a profound global impact.

In 2006, Tworkowski founded the campaign To Write Love On Her Arms to provide support for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. The organization has since grown to national and international prominence.

Tworkowski, a North Carolina native, spoke last week at UNC-CH to students and members of the local community about the mission of TWLOHA and the need to help anyone who feels alone in their suffering. He and members of the TWLOHA team travel to college campuses spreading their message throughout the year.

“Experiencing pain and loss is part of the human condition,” he said. “But we deserve to have other people…we can be honest with. We’re supposed to be loved.”

After the program opened with 20 minutes of stirring music from Carrboro-based singer Josh Moore and his acoustic guitar, Tworkowski talked about the beginnings of the TWLOHA initiative.

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In spring 2006 he met Renee, a then-19 year old in Florida struggling with abuse, addiction and depression. She had no one to turn to for help, he said.

“I got to know her story,” he said. “I learned that she still had a lot of unresolved questions in her story, something a lot of people can relate to.”

After helping Renee into treatment, Tworkowski asked her if she would share her story to help others in similar trouble — to his surprise, Renee immediately consented.

“She said she loved the possibility that there could be a purpose for her pain,” he said.

The story was initially spread through MySpace and other social networking sites. Bands such as Switchfoot and Paramore began promoting Renee’s cause — which was named “To Write Love On Her Arms” — at their concerts.

Selling TWLOHA t-shirts started as a fundraiser to help pay for Renee’s treatment, while offering another opportunity to tell Renee’s story, Tworkowski said. The story is written on the inside of many of their shirts.

In seven years the organization has received nearly 200,000 messages, letters and emails — from about 100 different countries — from people asking about help for themselves or for a friend or loved one.

“This is not just an American conversation, or a white person conversation, or an emo conversation,” Tworkowski said.

Several in the audience shared their own emotional, moving stories during the Q&A session with Tworkowski and with each other after the talk. One young woman from Carrboro spoke to the crowd of her past difficulty with self injury. She said she first saw the “To Write Love On Her Arms” shirt in a surf shop while on vacation — after reading Renee’s story inside the shirt, she was moved to tears.

Duke University junior Kaitlin Gladney, a member of Duke’s TWLOHA chapter, said that a friend of hers committed suicide during high school and that she has struggled with depression herself.

“I was scared to speak up because of the stigma surrounding (depression),” Gladney said. “The help I found was in community. It really helps people to know they’re not alone.”

Another attendee, UNC junior Andrea Pino, brought up her personal experience with sexual violence and talked about the struggle of feeling silenced. Pino was one of three UNC students who joined former assistant dean Melinda Manning last fall in filing a complaint against the University for ill treatment of sexual assault victims.

“Talking about stories and how we are all connected is a very good thing,” Pino said after the lecture. “It needs to happen a lot more often.”

The focus should be on productive, and not reactive, conversations, she said — a theme that echoed many of the ideas Tworkowski highlighted in his talk. Encouraging people in a dark place to move toward a brighter future is a focus of the organization, Tworkowski said.

“It’s not simple to get treatment or even to talk to someone for the first time,” he said. “But it’s our belief that it’s worth it.”

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