In our hyper-connected world, exposure to all forms of global suffering can be overwhelming. How can we possibly address all the tragedies and injustices that are part of the 24/7 news cycle? The answer is, we can’t. What we can do is care for those in our circle. We can seek to understand and help those we know and love who might be suffering. We can do the same for strangers in our neighborhoods or at our work. How much you choose to do actually is not what matters most. Everyone’s resources are different, so only you will know how much giving and helping is the right amount for you.
During Life is Good’s first six years in business we started working with several charities regularly. They were all great causes, but the decisions about who to support were based more on who came knocking than anything else. If somebody asked and we had some money or time, we gave it to them, but our methods were random and inefficient. We realized that in order to maximize our positive impact, we needed to zoom in on a single social cause that aligned closely with the philosophies of our company.
Kids are the ultimate optimists — and Life is Good has always been about bringing out the kid in all of us, regardless of age. So helping them was a natural path for us. As we continued to pursue that idea, and our employees got involved, they became even more excited about helping kids than making t- shirts. Can you blame them? The natural connection made our new cause easy for customers to understand; when we held festivals or designed special T-shirts to help kids, they loved it and supported us. That made things easier for us too.
As it happened, in 1989 – the same year we started making T-shirts — an inspiring friend of ours had begun building a trailblazing nonprofit called Project Joy, focused on the social and emotional health of Boston’s most vulnerable children. Steve Gross, the founder, is one of the most compassionate people we know. He’s devoted his entire adult life to the healthy development of children facing the most challenging circumstances. A pioneer in using play to promote resiliency in children and their caregivers, he’s also a revered leader in the field of early childhood trauma response.
In the early nineties, when we were in Boston in between road trips, we had helped Steve by designing logos and T-shirts, painting gyms and helping to run fundraiser hoop tourneys. By 2000, as we were developing our own approach to social work through trial and error, we noticed some clear parallels between our focus and the great work Steve was doing. Although his organization was dealing with some dark forces affecting children, they were bringing joy: smiles, laughter, bouncing balls, running, climbing, clapping, dancing, singing. While Steve and his team were well-educated about the problems, they weren’t fixated on the problems. They were focused on solutions. Project Joy was a group of powerful proactive optimists, and they were going into neighborhoods and hospitals where optimism is needed most.
One day, as we were discussing all this, Steve said, “Isn’t it crazy that there are thousands of trauma clinics across our country, but zero joy clinics?” This is where we really started seeing the potential for a match with Life is Good.
In 2005, we created the Life is Good Kids Foundation, an accredited 501(c)(3) public charity. For a time, we channeled funds and resources toward a select few nonprofits that supported kids in need. Meanwhile, Project Joy had evolved from providing direct care for children to a unique and innovative approach that trained and cared for the caregivers: those men and women who were dedicating their lives to helping children grow up safe, loved and joyful. The organization had learned their impact would grow by helping the helpers, and that focus was born out of Steve’s deep compassion for the exceedingly difficult work of frontline caregivers. Many, like inner city early childhood educators, counselors, foster care providers, or child life specialists, are not highly compensated for the important work they do. Their daily work is physically and emotionally draining, and their spirits can be assaulted by the heartbreaking realities in front of them: young children who are grappling with the devastating traumas of poverty, violence, abuse, neglect, and severe medical challenges.
Project Joy training was providing early childhood professionals with concrete tools and techniques to implement in their daily work. They also provided a rare opportunity for caregivers to experience connection, play and joy in ways that replenished their spirits and strengthened their resolve. A central emphasis became learning self-care, so that these unsung frontline heroes could sustain themselves over the long haul. After all, the best way for childcare providers to help children discover confidence and inspiration in life is to nourish these qualities in themselves. As a wise man once said: “Beware the naked man who offers you his shirt.” You can’t give what you don’t have.
Although kids had always inspired us as the ultimate arms-wide-open optimists, Steve and Project Joy helped us to see that many children struggle with terrible forces that threaten to crush that optimism early in their lives. As we made our mistakes and took our lumps in business, our old friend was making his way too. Each time we visited with him, we were more impressed with the common ground between the missions of Life is Good and Project Joy. As our business continued to expand, we made larger commitments each year to support Project Joy — and each year, more of our good people at Life is Good expressed their support. We started to imagine how we might bring our organizations together as one.
In early 2010, both companies had dated long enough and were ready to get married. We merged Project Joy into the LIG Kids Foundation and rebranded it as the Life is Good Playmakers. Why “Playmakers?” In sports, a playmaker is someone who steps up and makes a winning contribution at a critical time in the game. Similarly, a Playmaker is a person who makes a positive, life-changing impact at a critical time in a child’s life. A Playmaker is a difference-maker, a compassionate game-changer in the life of a child.
From that day forward, Playmakers has been our central nonprofit beneficiary. Their offices are right in the center of our company’s headquarters in Boston, so that we’re able to work and play together every day. Most importantly, we weave our social purpose into everything we do.
As a clear sign of our financial commitment to Playmakers, we announced publicly that 10% of our annual profits are given to helping kids in need,. The message gets through to all our customers, but it’s also a healthy, galvanizing point of difference for our staff. Every employee knows that, no matter what part of the business they touch, their work contributes to healing and strengthening vulnerable children.
Today there are over 8,000 Life is Good Playmaker-trained-and-supported professionals throughout the United States and Haiti, caring for more than 1 million children a day.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company.