Interested in starting your own journey in mental wellness but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Tonya Sandis, Founder of FREE2LUV, located in Seattle, WA, USA.
What's your organization, and who are your members?
Free2Luv is an award-winning youth development nonprofit we founded in 2011. Our mission is to transform the bullied into brave, celebrate individuality, and save lives through the arts. We empower youth to be their authentic selves. Right now, so many youths are struggling with their mental health. It's an epidemic that's become a global crisis. During COVID, we were inspired to create a new arts empowerment program, EXPRESS IT!, to provide youth a creative outlet and safe space to process their anxiety, depression, and mixed emotions.
By successfully providing youth safe spaces and tools to thrive, they can express themselves creatively, become more confident and compassionate, and turn their pain into power and purpose. They are then empowered to go out into their communities and support their peers, creating a powerful ripple effect of connection and empowerment.
Tell us about yourself
Can you imagine losing your children, your classmates, your friends, neighbors, nieces, and nephews all to an epidemic that has become one of the leading causes of death among youth 10 – 24 years old? I was done losing our future. The next inventor, doctor, poet, artist, and peacekeeper are being lost to youth suicide. We couldn't take it anymore. We had to take a stand for all of the innocent lives being lost. In response, my family and I started Free2Luv®, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to empowering, uplifting, and saving the lives of youth through the arts. As a parent, I knew we had to create innovative programming to teach youth how to cope with emotions in a healthy way and to foster connections that break down any sense of isolation. With our entertainment industry experience, we knew the power music and the arts have to heal, inspire, and transform lives and how the arts would provide a perfect platform to convey our message. Through artistic outlets and thought-provoking conversation, we give youth an answer to "why" they are needed here as we address topics pertinent to today's youth, including self-acceptance, acceptance of others, anxiety, depression, overcoming adversity, bullying, and aspirations.
I knew at a young age that I wanted to be an advocate for young people who needed a voice or a platform to express themselves. I am proud of the safe haven we have created for youth to thrive and express themselves creatively in a judgment-free environment. Free2Luv has become my family's life, work, and passion. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to make a difference in young people's lives. It is very gratifying when a young person who was struggling realizes their own inner strength and power and begins a journey toward self-love and self-acceptance. That aha moment is life-changing. It can happen anywhere - in a workshop, at one of our performances or events or in conversation with one of our mentors, or in a heart-to-heart with a peer. The greatest reward is witnessing another human thriving, another life changed or saved because of the 'heart' work we do. It is both humbling and deeply fulfilling.
What's your biggest accomplishment as an organization?
During COVID, when young people were struggling, we came up with a mental health program, EXPRESS IT! At the time, we had no idea the impact it would make. We have now partnered with hundreds of youth organizations across the country, providing this mental health resource and program to under-resourced and marginalized youth. And the impact it is making is incredible.
I am also very proud of our volunteerism and mentorship programs which brought us two Lifetime Humanitarian Achievement Awards for our service and commitment to empowering and supporting youth who at times feel helpless, alone, and suicidal.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being an organization?
One of the hardest things about running a nonprofit is also one of the things I'm most proud of. Every day we fight to keep the memory alive of the beautiful souls lost to youth suicide. We support the families, share their stories, and honor their memories through theatrical productions. Our goal is to bring awareness to suicide prevention and uplift youth who may also be experiencing trauma to know they are not alone. To be able to hold hands with families and make a promise to continue to fight for the voiceless is something I hold dear and will never forget.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow an organization today?
First, make sure the business you're going into is something you're passionate about. It's a long haul with highs and lows, and you need something that will drive you through challenges.
Second, surround yourself with people who have expertise and strengths you don't have that will lift you. Create a think tank that will help out when you get narrow in your focus. Their feedback can be invaluable.
Third, emulate companies whose ethos and values are in line with yours. They don't need to be in similar industries. You may like the way they market or how they value their customers. Make sure when you're starting up that you make it your own, and include the things you love in your style. Elevate it and make it your own.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
As a nonprofit, our strength lies in the community. Here are some ways you can support our efforts. One way is by sharing the good we're up to. We invite you to follow us on social media and share our mission with anyone who may benefit from it. Check out our blog at free2luv.org. It's filled with informative and inspirational content on bullying and suicide prevention, LGBTQ+, mental health, and much more!
Secondly, shop with us at shop.free2luv.org. Wear fashion that reflects the world you want to live in AND help youth in need. It's a win-win! If anyone reading is interested in our Advocacy program and would like to spread kindness in their community and via social media, we'd LUV for you to join Team Free2Luv. Just click the 'Get Involved' tab on our website and complete the short form.
Lastly, if you're in a position to give, your gift will put our life-enhancing programs into the hearts and hands of under-resourced youth who have limited access to mental health support and arts programming. You can truly save a life!
Where can people find you and your group?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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