Schools are tasked with a myriad of responsibilities, which range from teaching students core subjects such as mathematics, history, and literature, as well as intangible skills such as focus, discipline, and collaboration.
But when it comes to expressing emotions, taking care of their mental health, and being vulnerable with others, many children and young people fail to receive adequate direction. Without the correct tools to understand their feelings, youth can be more likely to experience emotions such as stress and anxiety, challenging personal relationships, and thoughts of self-harm.
Free2Luv is a nonprofit on a mission to provide safe spaces and tools for youth to become more confident and compassionate humans.
Free2Luv was co-founded in 2011 by Tonya Sandis when she realized that so many young people were losing their lives to suicide.
“The whole message behind Free2Luv is about loving yourself first and putting your love out into the world,” she says.
Formerly in the music industry, Tonya understood how impactful the arts can be in improving mental health and knew that art would be Free2Luv’s vehicle to uplift young people, allowing them to be seen, heard, and empowered.
There are several ways that Free2Luv achieves their mission.
The idea for one of Free2Luv’s highly successful programs was launched when COVID-19 caused a global lockdown. Tonya and her team saw that many youths – especially LGBTQ+ young people — were struggling with isolation.
In response, the Free2Luv team developed a carefully designed journal called EXPRESS IT!, a 72-page diary that includes social and emotional learning tools such as writing and drawing prompts. “It gets young people expressing themselves because when we keep these emotions in, they can be detrimental to mental health,” she says.
In an EXPRESS IT! journal, users are encouraged to list things they love about themselves, write about something that went right in their day, and much more.
Now in its fourth iteration, the EXPRESS IT! journal has morphed into a nationwide program for vulnerable youth that includes workshops in schools, LGBTQ+ groups, mental health facilities, afterschool programs, and more.
“We thought we’d reach 1,000 young people. To date, we have impacted over 20,000+ youths. I am insanely proud of this program because we’re giving young people the insights to take ownership over their mental wellness,” says Tonya.
Other programs include workshops that promote kindness online, mitigate school bullying, support queer communities, embrace peer differences, and more.
“In our youth workshops, nothing is off-topic,” says Tonya. “Young people who are experiencing something challenging end up being supported by their peers.”
Free2Luv’s partnership with Visit.org
Free2Luv’s social impact experience with Visit.org is focused on helping employees express themselves through art, too.
Not only does the experience give employees the permission to connect with their peers through vulnerability, but also it allows participants the opportunity to self-reflect during a period of creativity by using some of the prompts in Free2Luv’s EXPRESS IT! journal.
“We start off our Visit.org experience by doing a fun mental wellness check-in and art exercise. Then, we break into groups and explore topics such as healthy anger, peer-to-peer recognition, mental health practices, and more,” explains Tonya.
The experience helps fund EXPRESS IT! workshops for young people and provides non-earmarked dollars for the nonprofit. The money that Free2Luv receives from a Visit.org experience helps produce EXPRESS IT! journals, art supplies, programming, and more.
“Some of the community members we work with have never received their own journal or art supplies before,” says Tonya. “When you show someone that they’ve been seen and that they are valued, it’s a game-changer.”
Learn more about connecting with a nonprofit like Free2Luv by scheduling a call with Visit.org