Rising above the pain: ‘Love’ movement spreads hope, encourages treatment, recovery

11 12 2009
Zach Williams

Singer/songwriter Zach Williams bellows out his lyrics, which tell stories about friends and family in his former Georgia community, at a TWLOHA event at The College at Brockport.

Cardboard Testimonial

Students participate in the cardboard testimonials portion of the event, displaying words representing the "before and after" of their respective struggle.

Violated. Depressed Cutter. Shame and depression. These are some of the words written on the front side of cardboard signs, held high by Brockport students in front of an audience of more than 200 people in the college’s Union.

Vindicated. Long-term relief. Getting through it. These are the words written on the back. They represent the students’ liberation from severe afflictions, from self-harm and suicidal thoughts to depression and drug addiction.

The national nonprofit organization and movement To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) presents hope and provides support for people suffering from these common clinical illnesses. Its founder, 29-year-old Jamie Tworkowski, and his friends stage events at schools across the country combining live music, art and speech. Their goal is to facilitate “an honest conversation about pain and hope,” thereby de-stigmatizing conditions like depression and encouraging treatment and recovery.

The College at Brockport hosted a TWLOHA event Thursday, Dec. 3. The event featured two dances by the Student Dance Organization, a performance by singer/songwriter Zach Williams and a speech by Tworkowski, who founded TWLOHA unexpectedly three years ago.

Cardboard testimonials, arranged by Kerri Phillips, SSWO member and event organizer, and Jonathan Woods, Brockport Student Government’s cultural committee representative, kicked off the event.

As the lights dimmed and music began, six students strode the stage, one by one, stopping halfway to display both sides of their cardboard sign, “before and after” they sought help for their respective condition. One such student was Kyle Astor, a former self-injurer and crack cocaine addict, whose sign read “Cutter and Junkie.” She said the testimonials were somewhat of a self-affirmation.

“I’m not a big fan of hiding things anymore,” Astor said. “I like to be open about [my self-injury and drug addiction]. Yes, it did happen, but I overcame it.”

The overall message was well received by the audience.

“We all can relate to the struggles represented by the signs,” Brockport Junior Katie Mason said. “For me, it brought back personal experiences with friends and family. It was nice to see they had the courage to get up on stage and share their struggle. It let other people know they don’t have to be afraid or feel alone.”

Tworkowski mentioned the cardboard testimonials in his speech and related them to the music of the movement.

“I thought the cardboard testimonials were powerful and cool,” he said. “They (the students) were incredibly brave and honest. It seemed they had a sense of resolve. Yet, I wonder how many of us live in between the process of flipping the sign, or on the front without a solution?

“These things (clinical illnesses or similar, but less severe conditions) happen in secret and silence because people are afraid of how others will respond. And that’s what’s so powerful about music. It’s an outlet to express [what’s troubling us].”

Sharing ‘redemptive spirited’ songs

Tworkowski went on to explain how the eccentric singer-songwriter Zach Williams, whom he met while visiting friends in New York City, where the Florida man now lives, expresses his troubles.

“His songs were written from a place where he was wrestling with fears, dreams and trying to provide for his family (wife and daughter),” he said.

That place was a Georgia hospital waiting room, where Williams lived while his wife was recovering from a horse riding accident, in which she broke multiple bones in her neck. The doctors told him his wife would be a quadriplegic, but she miraculously recovered with full functionality. Much like the support needed to deal with and recover from clinical illnesses, Williams’ friends were a tremendous help during the time of tragedy.

“They sat with me in the waiting room for weeks at a time,” he said. “I know I was loved and cared for because they carried that burden with me.”

Williams wrote the song “Hospital,” which he performed at Brockport, as a letter to his wife. His performance resonated with the crowd, one student in particular.

“Zach’s music hit me hard,” junior Alex Krolikowski said. “You could really see his emotion and hear the truth shining through his songs, especially the James song. The ‘get out of the water’ metaphor was phenomenal.”

The song Krolikowski is referring to is “James.” It’s about a friend’s father who died in his sleep. James suffered from alcohol addiction for several years, though his family was unaware of it for a long time. Williams said he was able to keep it secret because he spent a lot of time out of the country tending to rug warehouses he owned. “Get out of the water” referred to James’ stagnant alcohol addiction.

Williams said his songs fit with the TWLOHA movement because they have a “redemptive spirit.” His lyrics tell personal stories about people in his former Georgia community.

Jamie and Denny

TWLOHA founder Jamie Tworkowski tells the story of the movement, which began as a small effort to help a hopeless friend, as recovering addict Denny Kolsch actively listens.

A recovering addict’s endeavors

Tworkowski’s speech and a recovering addict’s/TWLOHA member’s testimony followed Williams’ performance. Denny Kolsch began his testimony with a question: “What do you do when hope and happiness are gone, and the door to life is shut and you don’t have a say in the matter?” he asked.

“That was me. I was the one who felt helpless. All of the things that made me happy were gone and the things that gave me joy and excitement as a child no longer did. I was only excited if I could get a fix.”

Kolsch was an addict and didn’t know how he got there.

“It all kind of exploded in my high school years,” he said. “My friends went off to college and I stayed in my community. Inside I was empty and trying to find ways [to fill the void]. The only way I knew how to deal with my issues was with drugs.”

Kolsch said there was a period of three to four months where his days consisted of waking up, calling his dealer, going out on the streets to get drugs and coming back to his room to use — the life of a heroin addict.

Kolsch had friends and family, though they were of little help to him, at least in the short span of things.

“I had people who loved and cared for me and saw me suffering, but didn’t know how to react to my life of brokenness,” he said. “They didn’t know how to help me and I didn’t know how to let them. I didn’t want them to.”

At the pinnacle of Kolsch’s addiction in 2003, he was given an unusual opportunity through a local church. Friends and family, members of the church, were going on a mission trip to Nicaragua, in Central America, and a spot opened up. Kolsch was invited nd the experience changed his life forever, he said.

“I was in a state of deep despair and desperation,” he said. “I was strung out and hated God and anything to do with God. I was a leper on the margins of society and didn’t feel like anyone wanted to be near me.”

He was wrong. An elderly woman on the trip, whose curiosity was piqued by Kolsch’s track marks, among other things, wanted to be near him. She began prying into his life, asking questions and offering up some degree of solace. He resisted her inquiries at first, but learned to open up.

“I think I was ready to get better and wanted to let people in,” he said.

Having been introduced to the concept of community, he decided “to choose life,” he said, and began to feel change and the joy and excitement of life he left in his childhood long ago. He came back to the U.S. with an exuberant willingness to leave his demons behind him and work toward a better future. He was high within a week.

Kolsch found himself in a hotel room shooting heroin and filled with the same shame and despair that ruled his life before the mission trip. But this time, he reacted differently. He let others help him.

After leaving the hotel room, he noticed a white Jeep riding around town. The driver was a friend from the mission trip and he was looking for Kolsch. He had a choice:  reject him or let him into his hollowed out life. He chose the latter.

“He [his friend] looked at me dead in the eye and said ‘I love you and you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to live this way.'”

After that night, he didn’t. He packed up his bags, moved back to his parents’ house, and started going to church and attending a twelve step program. He got clean. He stayed clean.

“It’s still a struggle,” Kolsch said. “The temptations are strong, but life is filled with contrast. I try to find contentment and value in what I do, tasting the beauty and joy in preparing for moments of tragedy.”

Students share their experience

The event closed with a question and answer session with the two TWLOHA members and Williams. Students and community members stepped to the microphone, positioned in the audience, to share their struggles and ask for advice.

“I have a brother with bipolar disorder,” one audience member said. “He is at the bottom of the barrel, facing suicidal thoughts and I don’t know how to help him.”

In response, Tworkowski spoke of his experience with Renee Yohee, a suicidal and self-injuring drug addict who he and four friends helped get clean.

“People encouraged her to get help years before I came along,” Tworkowski said. “For whatever reason, she pushed those people away. But, she was so grateful for those who didn’t give up on her and reminded her that there’s hope.

“Tell your brother that you love him, are concerned about him and want to get him the help he needs. Encourage him not to be afraid to get help. There may be some tricky tension, so find a balance of compassion and honesty.”

Kolsch said the people he initially rejected created a foundation that eventually changed his life. In the long-run, they had a “profound effect,” on him, he said.

“Knowing they were there probably prevented me from taking my life,” he said.

Another audience member, Brockport junior Misty Stratton, shared her experience with a number of unfortunate events that led to a sever state of depression. Her mother had seven miscarriages, her brother was diagnosed with autism, her romantic relationship ended, she was date-raped and found out her father was terminally ill, she said.

“After all this, everything came to a head and for a month I was sleeping 18 hours a day,” she said. “When I was asleep, I didn’t have to deal with anything.

“I’ve been dealing with depression since I was 14 and help isn’t something you seek at that age. Peers consider it shameful. But it’s not. Don’t keep things bottled up. I thank God for the people who were there to help me.”


Marketing yourself: students learn networking skills, strength

16 11 2009

If you were a new employee of Paychex, having only been on the job for three days, and are attending your first work-related social event, would you be nervous or uncomfortable? Could you communicate confidently and effectively with your colleagues and bosses?

This is the scenario The College at Brockport’s dean of graduate studies, Dr. Susan Stites-Doe, created for students Tuesday, Nov. 10 in the union. Stites-Doe, along with guest speaker Tom Proietti, professor of communications at Monroe Community College and St. John Fisher,  taught networking tools and tips at the Department of Communications’ third Speaker Series for Students session, “Marketing Yourself: Networking Skills You Can’t Live Without.”
Stites covered conversational tactics, while Proietti focused his presentation on developing a “personal brand” using Facebook.

The session began with the Paychex exercise. Stites-Doe played the part of Paychex president, Proietti as vice president of sales, and Karen Olson, assistant professor of communications at Brockport, as CEO. Stites-Doe said students, or “Paychex employees,” could not communicate effectively with the “higher-ups.

“Most of them shook our hands, and then sort of stood in place, not knowing what to do or say,” she said.

She also said although some students seemed “fairly at ease with the experience,” they provided little information beyond their names and had a very weak handshake, adding that males are often reluctant to firmly shake females’ hands.

There is a solution to the “nothing-to-say” problem in professional-social situations and Stites-Doe made students well aware of it. Shortly after the Paychex exercise, she presented a PowerPoint slide with a series of pictures and words, that together act as a mnemonic (memory-recall) device for facilitating verbal communication.

The slide included “safe” topical areas that “bridge the gap” between you and another person in a professional-social setting, Stites-Doe said.

“The idea is to find a way to interact that helps you connect meaningfully with another person you’ve just met,” she said.  “You want to be interesting and confident in your social exchanges, and avoid sensitive topics that could cause offense or put distance between you and the other person.”

Sensitive topics include religion and politics, Stites-Doe said. Pictures included a child, representing family, and a plant, representing travel.

Brockport junior Katelyn Opdyke, broadcast journalism major, said the mnemonic device  should prove useful.

“Conversation in professional-social settings isn’t always easy,” she said, “so having those tips (pictures and associated words) to start of a conversation will come in handy.”

They already have. In a second exercise, Stites had students use the mnemonic device in a conversation with someone else in the room who they’ve never met.

“In talking to my partner and using the slide, we both realized we had something in common and once you find that common interest, conversation is always enhanced,” Opdyke said.

Chances are professional colleagues, particularly bosses, have already developed an image of you before any physical or verbal interaction has taken place. How? One word: Facebook.

“Ninety-two percent of employers are using Facebook,” said Tom Proietti, professor of communications at Monroe Community College and St. John Fisher. “The first thing they do is look at your profile, which can be more important than the schools you went to or the degrees you have.”

Proietti said Facebook is a major part of personal brand development. The notion of personal branding is relatively new, but it is a critical component in marketing yourself. Facebook can enhance – or destroy – your personal brand, or an employers’ perception of you.

“Facebook is a branding gift,” he said. “It is a template to establish one’s self as a dynamic, caring and insightful person, rather than a person who drops F-bombs and WTFs with reckless abandon.”

Enhancing your brand through a Web page demands hard work, Proietti said, but can be made easier through simple steps and thoughtfulness; consciously think about who you are, what you want to appear like to the rest of the world and avoid common mistakes like posting compromising photos.

Proietti’s part of the speaker session reinforced Brockport Student Government marketing coordinator’s thoughts on the topic.

“Personal branding is an important part of what I do,” Peter Lista said. “And it’s a powerful concept student’s need to understand. If you’re not branding yourself, someone else is.”

Communications professor Tom Proietti teaches the finer points of developing a personal brand using Facebook at a Communication Department speaker session. He shows the student-audience a Facebook photo of his grand daughter, which is representative of his personal brand.


The College at Brockport dean of graduate studies, Dr. Susan Stites speaks to students about a mnemonic device used to break the ice and find commonality with another person in a social-professional setting.



Communications professor Tom Proietti teaches the finer points of developing a personal brand using Facebook at a Communication Department speaker session. He shows the student-audience a Facebook photo of his grand daughter, which is representative of his personal brand.


The College at Brockport dean of graduate studies, Dr. Susan Stites-Doe speaks to students about a mnemonic device used to break the ice and find commonality with another person in a social-professional setting.

The “off the record” dilemma

16 09 2009

When a source says “This is off the record…” what does it mean?

It means he or she is about to tell you something juicy– and expects you not to divulge it. Really?

On the record: We (Journalists) are not payed to keep secrets. In fact, just the opposite holds true. “Off the record” as part of a package does not prohibit mass delivery.

The dilemma

We are expected to, and take pride in, digging up desirable information. The deeper the whole the better the story. So what do we do when sources say something “off the record.” Nothing, if we expect them to talk to us again (obvious exceptions include public figures, particularly politicians). Otherwise, we piss them off and either a.) loose a dig site or b.) break our shovel.

Of course, if it’s a critical piece of information the public doesn’t know, but needs to,  all bets are off.

In a recent interview, one of my source criticized, “off the record” mind you, a governmental organization:  “…Typical state agency dragging its feet,” he said. Granted, it wasn’t that juicy, nor crucial to the story, but I still wanted to use it. Why didn’t I?  The damn dilemma.