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Jamie Tworkowski of ‘To Write Love on Her Arms’ (TWLOHA): “It’s important to find five people who know the stuff you don’t”

If someone is interested in starting a non-profit, I think the biggest single piece of advice I can offer is to encourage them to learn as much as they can from people who are already doing similar work. Read as much as you can. Volunteer. Become an intern or work for another non-profit. It’s tempting […]

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If someone is interested in starting a non-profit, I think the biggest single piece of advice I can offer is to encourage them to learn as much as they can from people who are already doing similar work. Read as much as you can. Volunteer. Become an intern or work for another non-profit. It’s tempting to want to start something new, and that’s totally okay. There will always be opportunities for new things. But there is also a ton of value in learning from the work that’s already being done.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Tworkowski.

Jamie Tworkowski is the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and suicide. TWLOHA began in 2006 as Jamie’s attempt to help a friend and tell a story. Since then, the TWLOHA team has responded to more than 210,000 messages from over 100 countries, in addition to investing more than 2.5 million dollars directly into treatment and recovery. Jamie’s TWLOHA blogs are a source of hope and encouragement for thousands, and he speaks frequently at universities, concerts and conferences. Jamie lives in Melbourne Beach, Florida. He loves surfing, music, basketball and being an uncle.


Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I was born in North Carolina. My family moved to Central Florida when I was five. My Dad is a surfer and I fell in love with surfing at an early age. I was also a sensitive kid, a bit of a daydreamer. I didn’t love school but I did enjoy the social or “people” aspect of school. I had a knack for getting along with different kinds of people, kids that ran in different circles. Growing up, my dream was to work in the surf industry, as a sales rep for one of the clothing brands. From 18 to 22, I worked as a sub (assistant) rep for Quiksilver. And then when I was 22, the brand Hurley gave me a huge opportunity when they hired me to be their sales rep for the state of Florida. I did that for four years, leaving to start To Write Love on Her Arms when I was 26.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit?

My friend Renee, a new friend at the time, was struggling with addiction, depression, and self-injury. She was denied entry into a local treatment center in Orlando and spent the next five days living with my friends and me. We did our best to keep her smiling, sober, and safe. There was no thought of “starting a non-profit.” I was moved by getting to know her and asked what she thought about the possibility of telling her story. After the five days, Renee entered treatment and I wrote a short story about getting to know her. I called it, “To Write Love on Her Arms.” I also started selling t-shirts as a way to help pay for her treatment. Essentially, thanks to young people on MySpace and the support of friends in bands, both the story and the shirts went viral. People wrote in asking for help, sharing stories of loss, and asking how to get involved. I realized pretty quickly that we could do more than help one person. I ended up quitting my Hurley sales job so that I could work on TWLOHA full-time.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

The biggest thing we do is communicate. We miss getting to do that in-person, at music festivals and conferences and college campuses and so many different kinds of events. Thankfully, we can still use technology to reach people and the truth is, the internet is where we’ve done most of our work for 15 years now. It has allowed us to reach people in more than 100 countries. We use writing and design to move people from hopelessness to hope and from isolation to connection. We got our start on MySpace back in 2006 and over time we’ve been able to transition to other platforms, from Facebook to Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram. We use social media to communicate messages of encouragement, information, and hope. We also use it to send folks to our website, where they’ll find stories of healing, and resources where they can connect with professional help. One of the things we’re most proud of is our Find Help Tool, which allows someone to enter their zip code and use various filters to find mental health resources in their local community. twloha.com/findhelp Last but not least, there are campaigns and events throughout the year that serve as opportunities for people to invite their friends and followers into conversations about mental health and suicide prevention. These campaigns also create moments where individuals can be vulnerable in choosing to share their own personal story as it relates to mental health.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

The best stories we ever get to hear are from people sharing that they’re still alive or they ended up getting help because of TWLOHA. Whether it’s an email, social media comment, handwritten note, or a conversation face-to-face at an event, these are the moments that put everything into perspective. Obviously, the setting dictates how much of the story we get to hear, but it’s always powerful when someone shares that TWLOHA encouraged them to stay alive, or to step into counseling or treatment. Sometimes I meet people who simply want to say “thank you” because the organization made it possible financially for them to go to counseling.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We have to continue to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health, addiction, and suicide. We have to continue to normalize talking about these issues. So many people are afraid to talk about these things, and as a result they end up suffering in isolation and silence. There is so much power in connection, in friendship, in vulnerability, in asking for help. We have to lead by example. When we talk openly about our struggles, we make it easier for others to do the same.

We have to continue to ask for and fight for affordable mental health care. If the first step is being willing to ask for help, the second is being able to afford it. There are financial barriers that exist for too many people, especially when you look at something like in-patient treatment, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Cost shouldn’t keep people from getting the help that can change their life or even save their life. Insurance companies have to continue to do better in helping customers get the help they need. Mental health shouldn’t be any different than dealing with a broken bone or something as serious as cancer. It’s been said that “the brain is part of the body” and that should be true as it relates to healthcare.

The third thing I’ll mention goes with the previous one. You could call it “access.” We hear so many stories where someone is trying to make a counseling appointment but they can’t find a counselor with any openings in their schedule, or maybe they can’t find a counselor who is in their insurance network. Or maybe it’s a college student and they finally build up the courage to make an appointment, but the next opening is three weeks away. They’re struggling now, they need help now, they can’t wait three weeks. We need everyone to come to the table in prioritizing mental health, from insurance companies to schools to employers. We have to encourage people to ask for help. We have to make sure they can afford it. And we have to make sure they have access to help when they need it.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I actually think that as a society or culture, we focus too much on “leadership.” There are a zillion books, courses, and conferences. We elevate leaders to the point of celebrity. We place certain people on pedestals and we see over and over again that it can be a recipe for disaster. We’re surprised when leaders turn out to be human. It’s one thing to be known by the public. It’s another thing entirely to be a healthy person who is actually known by their friends and family. I used to want to speak at every important event, meet every influential person, keep adding to my list of accomplishments. These days I’m more interested in learning how to be a healthy person, how to be a good friend, how to be kind, how to navigate disappointment and conflict, basically how to exist as a person on this planet. Hopefully as those things happen, I can lead from a place that’s honest.

That said, I do think there are different kinds of leadership. My sister Jessica is great at leading a staff meeting but she wouldn’t enjoy speaking on stage at a college. I’m the opposite. It took me a dozen years to realize that I’m no good at staff meetings but I do enjoy communicating in other ways. I love writing and I love talking to audiences about things that I believe in. We’re all wired differently and it’s taken me close to 15 years to realize that we have to encourage people to be themselves, to play to their strengths. There are things I’m not good at. I probably shouldn’t do those things. I should probably focus on doing the stuff I’m good at.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.

I think that more than knowing five things, it’s important to find five people who know the stuff you don’t. I didn’t know anything about non-profits when TWLOHA started. I was just riding the wave of writing a story and trying to help a friend. I learned that it’s so important to connect with people who know the stuff you don’t, and who are good at the things you aren’t. Which of course starts with self-awareness and honesty. Looking back at the beginning of TWLOHA, I was comfortable with the creative aspects and with the idea of attempting to move people. I had experience with t-shirts and branding, and I was getting into writing. But I am so thankful for all of the people who helped with the rest, from finances to legal to management, not to mention connecting with experts who worked in mental health.

If someone is interested in starting a non-profit, I think the biggest single piece of advice I can offer is to encourage them to learn as much as they can from people who are already doing similar work. Read as much as you can. Volunteer. Become an intern or work for another non-profit. It’s tempting to want to start something new, and that’s totally okay. There will always be opportunities for new things. But there is also a ton of value in learning from the work that’s already being done.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Bono. He’s my hero.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

I recently moved back to the town I grew up in, near the beach in Central Florida. The idea that’s been stuck in my head for the last few months is, “Participate in the community.” There are a lot of ways to unpack that but for me it’s been important to not only make peace with the place I grew up but more importantly to embrace the people who live here. It goes back to something I mentioned earlier, the simple idea of learning to exist in the world, not needing to be impressive, not needing to be on a plane every few days. I want to be kind to the people who make my coffee in the morning. I want to know the people who make my lunch. I want to be something like a big brother to the kids I see when I go surfing. I’ve lived in Brevard County for most of my life but for so many years I resented it. It was “been there, done that.” I definitely didn’t enjoy it and I definitely didn’t participate in the community. I’m thankful for the shift that’s taken place during the pandemic. It’s grounded me, put me in one place, and I’m appreciating things in a new way. I’m appreciating other people.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow To Write Love on Her Arms at @twloha on social media or visit twloha.com. You can follow me at @jamietworkowski on Instagram and Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

Thank you for having me and thanks for asking great questions.

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