Open Arms

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By Sarah Sekula, Published in FirstMonday magazine / photo courtesy of TWLOHA

Cocaine was fresh in Renee Yohe’s system when Jamie Tworkowski met her three years ago. The 19-year-old disheveled blond hadn’t slept in 36 hours and wouldn’t for another 24.

Her daze was a poison-filled concoction of coke, pot, pills and alcohol. A frightening scenario for both parties, especially after discovering it would be five days before she would be able to enter a treatment center, due to the open wounds on her arms. In the meantime, Tworkowski and friends took matters into their own hands: accompanying her at concerts, a Magic game, coffee shops and a church service, anything to keep her mind off the habit she was struggling to squash.

Surprisingly, Tworkowski had only just met Renee; yet he was determined to help. How could he raise money? T-shirts, he thought. He would print T-shirts. Also, how would he encourage strangers to connect with Renee? MySpace might do the trick. He cautiously asked if he could share her struggles with the online community. She replied yes, hoping that maybe there was a purpose for her pain, after all. Next, he penned and posted on MySpace a heartfelt story recounting the young woman’s battle with addiction and depression, entitled “To Write Love on Her Arms.”

What happened next floored Tworkowski. Response after response flooded the social networking page. And after a famous band member wore one of the T-shirts, the positive apparel took on a life of its own. He had harnessed the oomph of the teenage, music-loving crowd. That year, he raised $100,000. It was clear: He could do more than just pay for Yohe’s treatment, counseling and medication; he could aid in the treatment of others, too.

As a result, he founded the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms and nowoperates it out of a bungalow-style home in Cocoa. Ask a dozen people what TWLOHA is, and you’ll likely get a dozen very different responses. It’s community. It’s rescue and recovery. It’s an honest dialogue about depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. For Tworkowski, “It’s the chance to inspire and encourage people,” he says. “We are in the business of introducing people to hope and help. It’s certainly a privilege.”

Funny thing is the 29-year-old never planned to start a nonprofit. Business was moving along swimmingly at Hurley, a surf company, where he was the Florida sales rep. “The money was good, and there was a lot of freedom,” he says. “But I felt like something special was happening with TWLOHA, like it was the chance to bring my heart to work.”

Something special is an understatement. Yohe’s story has generated responses from 90,000-plus people in 40 countries. The TWLOHA MySpace page, with 200,000 friends, boasts the largest following in the site’s history, and Tworkowski’s blog is widely read.

That said, it’s easy to feel as though you already know Tworkowski. Globally, a growing chorus sings his praises, including “NBC Nightly News,” CNN, MSN and MTV, to name a few. Not coincidentally, his calendar is packed with unusual speaking opportunities. April: eight U.S. universities. March: a traveling festival in Australia. Summertime: the Vans Warped Tour, a two-month music festival traveling across America. “There’s nothing like the energy of a thousand people waiting to see a band they love,” he says. “They’re not there to be silent, and they don’t owe me their attention, but there are moments where you can hear a pin drop, moments where people seem to receive a message of hope and help.”

Since launching the nonprofit, Tworkowski says, “I’ve met some amazing people, been places I never thought I’d go, heard incredible stories of people choosing to stay alive and people getting the help they need.” With no background in counseling, he soaks up all he can on the topic of depression. “We’ve learned that most people never get the help they need,” he explains. The fact is that untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that 19 million people live with depression, and that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among those 18 to 24 years old. “Most people never talk about these things,” he says. “So we’re trying to invite people to live less alone, to take that first step.”

There’s no doubt his words strike a chord with a huge worldwide audience. And if there’s one thing readily apparent about Tworkowski — dreamer, motivator and fiery humanitarian—it’s his natural ability to inspire. You’d never even know he grapples with depression himself.

Learn More: Renee Yohe’s book, “Purpose for the Pain,” a compilation of her journals about her addiction and recovery, is available at www.zambooie.com/twloha. To read the story that launched the movement, visit www.myspace.com/towriteloveonherarms.