Walking through Brookdale Community College was a stroll I had not done in a while and I’m sure it is an activity that most students may loathe. However, on that brisk afternoon, the leaves were rustling about in their newly autumn attire in a way that felt calming to me. As I made my way towards the Navasink Room, kids filled the lobby and made it come alive with acoustic guitars and bongos (mind you, this is at 10:30 am). My mood was set and I was ready to be enlightened.
Outside the room I overheard an older woman talking to a young girl. She was asking her if she had to be there for a college credit or an assignment for class and she replied, “No. I came all the way from Toms River to hear him speak.” I got the feeling that everyone there shared a common connection with each other, and it was real.
Before Tworkowski began to really get into his speech, he introduced a music guest, Eric James. James and his acoustic sunk each and every person into their seats with his Howie Day/Dylan-esque style. He told tales of hard times he encountered and his connection with the organization, which bonded him to the audience. I watched as a few people even took out their cameras and phones to record his performance.
After James’s performance, Tworkowski spoke about how TWLOHA came about, and his experiences and interactions with those who were on the journey to creating the organization. Although I have read up on this from their website, hearing Tworkowski disclose these personal accounts with this entire room was completely different.
He told of his corporate job marketing for Hurley…
“I felt empty. I felt like I wasn’t wired for this job. I needed to do something creative. I really love music and I didn’t know what to do with it, but I loved music. I felt like I grew up with these parents that were incredibly caring and cared about peoples’ needs and problems and when they became aware of these things they kinda just stopped and tried to help these people.”
During his story, we were introduced to his friend, David, who had gone through addiction and recovery, and we soon met his friend Renee who was still going through addiction and depression. We learned about Renee’s last night before she became sober and how she carved “Fuck Up” into her arm…
“I say that word in places that you’re not supposed to, that you’re not allowed to. I totally get that. But the reason it comes out now, is because if you had a chance to meet my friend Renee and got to talk to her about that night and that word and that moment and why, It wouldn’t be a conversation about profanity, but it would be a conversation about identity. I’ve been alive for almost 20-years and there’s not much to be proud of. I don’t have anything to show for it. This is how stuck I am. This is how much regret I live with. This is the failure that I am. This is me.”
Tworkowski was just having a conversation with us the entire time. That’s all it felt like; just a friend telling a story about his experience. Everyone was transfixed by each word he spoke.
He ended modestly…
“My goal is not to impress you with a story of a non-profit that started small and took off and hopes that everyone buys a t-shirt on the way out. My goal or hope is not to impress you with a story of a girl back home or my buddy Eric and his songs or my own story. But really our goal is that we love doing these things and believe in it and it’s this attempt to redirect the lights, press pause, and say everyone in this room is living a story. You’re living a story that’s unique, that’s sacred, that’s priceless, and it matters.“
After his speech, I stuck around to try and get an interview from Tworkowski. I watched as people swarmed him with questions, hugs, pictures, and most commonly to thank him for everything that he has helped create.
While I was waiting for everyone to clear the room, I had a chance to sit down with Marissa Cohen, a 21-year old from Marlboro who is on the Student Lifeboard Committee at Brookdale that actually booked Tworkowski to speak there.
“I love their message. I’ve always been the type of person to want to help my friends. I don’t like seeing other people upset, no matter if I like them, don’t like them, or don’t even know them” Cohen explained.
It was awesome to see that Tworkowski’s message of “community,” which he talks about in his interview, has been taking effect and I was able to see it first hand.
Tworkowiski may not be Gandhi or some sort of highly praised orator, but his words were so sincere and hopeful that I was in awe the entire hour or so I listened to him speak. He made me realize there’s a healer in all of us.
Check out what he had to say about TWLOHA’s up and coming movie Renee, the organization, and the life behind the founder of a successful non-profit.
Q: TWLOHA is a non-profit that helps people with people. Could you talk to me about how you state that, “We are not a 24-hour helpline. We are not trained professionals,” but yet TWLOHA has been able to impact so many peoples’ lives.
J: We’re not communicating ideas that we invented. We didn’t invent hope, we didn’t invent the idea of getting help. But we really believe those things. And hopefully we communicate in a way that people can relate to and it’s not this clinical doctor’s language, not that there’s not a place for that. But, we use a language that most people can relate to, and hopefully we can meet people where they are whether that’s online or in their lives, or in the context of events. We’re not trying to be the whole process, we’re not trying to be a treatment center or a crisis hotline, but we’re kinda pointing away from ourselves hoping that people get the help they need or even end up back in their own community with their real friends or a support system.
Q: Some of your concepts are very simplistic, such as this new one Fears vs. Dreams. How do you think it clicks so well with people?
J: I think we touch on some things that are universal that most people can relate to. But, the most interesting thing about Fears vs. Dreams is not so much what we came up with, but creating a platform. And what’s really interesting about it, is the answers that people put on that platform; the way that people relate to those answers. In a way, our hope is that our audience becomes the focus and it’s about them. It’s not about “look how smart we are, look how awesome we are.”
Q: What types of improvement and achievements do you hope for the future of this non-profit? I’ve noticed you guys have been nominated for a few awards and money prizes.
J: One of the biggest things we do is communicate our message. And the money we give away, we give towards treatment and recovery. But the biggest thing that we do is in creative ways in a lot of diff context we bring this message of hope, help, and community. We do it in the realm of music, on college campuses, on the internet, we do it even in other countries. So obviously the million dollars would go a long way to allowing us to do more.
Part of that would be that “Heavy and Light” tour that I mentioned. Part of it would be giving a big chunk would go towards treatment and recovery. One idea is to create an online platform where people can invest in treatment in their community. And one is to invest into an online crisis network that we helped launch. So that’s really exciting too.
Q: “Renee” is planned to be released this upcoming year staring Kat Dennings and Chad Michael Murray. Talk to me about how the movie came about. Is it totally gratifying to be able to tell the entire reason behind the start of this almost 7-year, and still blossoming organization through a movie? How does it feel to be played by a heartthrob?
J: It’s humbling, and that “who would have thought.” I think one of the coolest things was it kind of felt like going back to the beginning. Some of it was a simple as being around my fiend Renee and David a lot for a few weeks. And some of it was watching these actors recreate these moments I had experienced, some of which I talked about today. It kinda felt like being at camp; everyone was kind and everyone was working together to create this really special thing.
But it’s funny when someone’s playing you. Honestly, there’s a funny feeling that you’re supposed to play you. Not in a bad way, but in a way that that’s Chad and this is me. We spent some time together and he didn’t want to mimic me but he wanted it to be rooted in something real.
I think the bigger picture, bigger than me and bigger than the organization is just our hope is that people will be encouraged by the film and touched. Our hope is that people sit in these theaters and feel encouraged, or inspired, or just less alone, or just the desire to get help.
Q: I want to hear about the founder of it all. At the end of the day, is there time for you? It seems like a lot of dedication that most people may not have the money and time for. Is your personal life affected and does it ever factor in at this point?
J: It definitely affects my personal life. I might be home 4 or 5 days this month. It, in a lot of ways, has become my life. I think I have gotten better at separating the two, so just figuring out who I am besides the organization. And obviously a lot of my story is wrapped up in our story and vise versa.
The thing is that years have gone by and it’s gotten easier and my dreams have become more and more simple. My dream for us is to help people to save lives, to see lives change but I think a lot of cool doors have opened. Like big TV moments or awards. And my dreams are more and more simple like having a family or having a place where that feels like home and people that feel like home. My dreams are less and less fancy.
You have to look at parts at like that aren’t your job and I know my job is unique, but there’s a story beyond that. You can’t just fly around and do these events. I mean, I love them and I’m thankful, but there’s gotta be this other thing that’s real, that happens quietly.
For more information on Jamie and Tworkowski and To Write Love on Her Arms check out the official website.