Ten-year-old Free2Luv is a national award-winning youth development nonprofit, with a mission is to “transform the bullied to brave, celebrate individuality and save lives through the arts.” During the COVID pandemic, Free2Luv created a new arts empowerment program, EXPRESS IT!, to provide a creative outlet and safe space for young people dealing with anxiety, depression and more. Here, Tonya Sandis, founder and CEO, discusses EXPRESS IT!, the nonprofit’s pledge and its one-of-a-kind merch.
What is the mission of Free2Luv? We are an award-winning youth development nonprofit, and our mission is to transform the bullied to brave, celebrate individuality and save lives through the arts. We empower youth to be their authentic selves. Right now, so many youth 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.
What prompted the start of the nonprofit? 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 to 24 years old? I was done losing our future. The next inventor, doctor, poet, artist, peacekeeper is 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, and I am proud of the safe-haven we have created for youth to thrive and express themselves creatively in a judgment-free environment.
This year, we are 10 years strong and have empowered Youth Advocates in 34 states and 23 countries to implement our outreach/mentorship program with their peers. Pre-COVID, we were reaching over 35,000 youth annually through our school and community art and music initiatives. We have saved the lives of countless youth who felt alone and suicidal, and many have become Advocates helping others who were once like them. We’ve had the privilege of working with city and community leaders to develop our programs, Celebrity Ambassadors [which include Vanessa Hudgens, Lisa Kudrow, Tea Leoni and countless others], professional athletes, and – most importantly – our youth.
Why was it especially important that the nonprofit focus on providing a safe space for young people? Due to economic circumstances, lack of access to affordable mental health care and often unstable home environments or lack of familial support, many young people in our programs must cope with anxiety, depression, trauma and suicidal thoughts alone. Since the pandemic began, many have also lost outside support systems—teachers, out-of-school programs and friends. Since the onset of the pandemic, mental health providers across the country report being inundated by new patients with issues such as dysregulated sleep/eating patterns, anxiety, depression, feeling unmotivated or unable to complete activities, and isolation. Now imagine you are a young person without emotional/mental health support and no tools to help you cope with the emotions that arise from bullying, racism, poverty, and the trauma wrought on our collective psyches throughout the past year and a half. We know how important it is to provide safe, judgment-free spaces for youth to come together, share their collective pain, and creatively express and create in community. Our workshops are well-known as warm, inviting, and compassionate spaces where youth and trusted mentors with open and caring hearts come together, often providing youth one of their first experiences of social connection and cohesion. Here youth are free to be who they truly are, without judgment or limitation, and can creatively express themselves without rules.
What is the Free2Luv pledge and why are people encouraged to take it? The Free2Luv pledge is a powerful promise that reflects everything we stand for. We are proud to have hundreds of thousands of people around the globe who have joined us in taking a stand for what they believe in. We invite your readers to join their voices with ours and take the pledge online at free2luv.org:
I believe LUV is STRONGER than hate
and BRAVER than bullying.
I believe when we stand together,
we stand strong.
I will be a voice for the voiceless.
I have zero tolerance for bullying
or discrimination of any kind.
I am committed to being the best
version of myself to create change.
Free2Luv has an incredible merch shop; in what ways does that get your message across? Thank you; we’re proud of our merch. A lot of it has been designed by teens! We feel like our merch provides supporters an opportunity to wear their visions and values with messages like LOVE ALL and ROCK LUV NOT HATE. And the super cool thing is every time someone shops with us, we donate an empowerment package to a teen struggling with bullying, their identity or self-harm, so the purchase has a double impact. Right now, the empowerment package includes our creative expression activity book/journal, EXPRESS IT!
What is the greatest reward in being involved with Free2Luv? Before Free2Luv was born, we wanted to make sure our organization’s name reflected our ethos. Whether it’s bullying, self-harm or self-loathing, we believe behind every issue is low self-esteem and a lack of self-love. The name Free2Luv is about loving yourself first, loving others and being free to love whoever you desire.
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 towards 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 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 is the biggest challenge the nonprofit faces? Our journey has not been met without challenges, but it has been a profound experience and complete labor of love. Every day, youth are struggling with bullying, their identity and mental health, and sadly, dying by suicide. Our challenge is to provide our empowerment prevention programming to more youth to help stop this epidemic. When kids are encouraged and supported and empowered and have a voice, we know bullying and self-harm can be mitigated.
One of our biggest challenges is connecting with people and companies that are like-minded and support our mission to create a kinder, braver, more loving world. We’re proud of the reach and impact we’re making, but we’d like it to be even greater. Our vision is for no child to be left alone, feeling hopeless, misunderstood or unwanted.
One thing I was not prepared for was the emotional turmoil I would experience on this journey. I have experienced deep heartache with families who have lost their children to suicide. They inspire us daily to continue on this journey, supporting and nurturing the mental health of as many youth as possible.
What are your goals for 2021? Our goal this year is to put our mental health empowerment program EXPRESS IT! into the hearts and hands of as many youth in need as possible. During COVID, we brought together a youth collective, child development specialists, mental health professionals, designers, artists and copywriters to design a program to promote youth’s well-being. From this think tank came EXPRESS IT! — a program that combines Social Emotional Learning (SEL) practices, art therapy techniques, and writing/journaling to help youth express their thoughts and emotions, improve their moods, deal with their stressors in more positive ways, and help them develop a positive sense of self. Every time we share this program, we believe we are providing vital tools to help youth thrive.
How can readers help? Thank you for asking! 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: GIVE HERE. You can truly save a life!
Written by Melissa Larsen, FabWA
Featured photo credit: Ricardo Quintana Photography