Steffanie Lorig is the Founder and Executive Director of Art with Heart, a nonprofit that helps high-risk kids work through their problems using art & creativity. Art with Heart’s therapeutic activity books give them an outlet to express their deepest feelings, using illustrations, art exercises and creative writing prompts.
Steffanie was an award-winning graphic designer, when she decided to quit her job & work on Art with Heart full-time, while still freelancing out of her basement.
Art with Heart has published 5 activity books, bringing joy to 100,000 kids to date. Oodles of Doodles, their first book, was given away to 20,000 hospitalized kids who loved it! Another book, Chill & Spill, was used to help 1500 young survivors from Hurricane Katrina. Their latest book, Draw It Out, is designed for children going through overwhelming grief or loss.
Steffanie talks to us about how she started Art with Heart, miracles encountered along the way & her advice on fundraising for your mission.
The edited, print version:
You were an award-winning graphic designer, working alongside people who really challenged you, yet it felt like something was not right. Tell me about the time when you knew something had to change.
I had started Art with Heart while I was a graphic designer. I’d get up at 4 in the morning and work 4 hours before I went to work. Sometimes I’d use my lunchtime. I was working for a wonderful design firm at the time & I was doing some fun work. And then 9/11 happened. It changed a lot of people’s foundation. Everybody I knew started to think about how they were spending their time.
One day I received samples from my portfolio for a project that I’d been working on. I opened it up, I looked at it & my heart sank. I felt like “Oh my gosh, I just made garbage. Nobody’s going to be keeping this. It’s not going to better the community.” I talked to my boss about it & she said there’s another way to look at it “You’re helping this company keep people employed. You’re feeding their families.”
But because I had been doing this meaningful work with Art with Heart, it was tugging at my heart. What if I did Art with Heart full-time and have that be my career path?
I started talking to my husband about it. He said “I totally support you, that would be exciting, that’s great!” So one day I walked home and I said “Hey honey, I quit.” and he’s like “What have you done!” Anyway, it all came together. Creating packaging versus changing children’s lives – I had that choice to make.
Before this day when you made the decision to quit – you had previously tried to help out a local nonprofit and that hadn’t worked out. Can you tell us about that incident & how it was a trigger to start Art with Heart?
When I first moved to Seattle, I wanted to get involved in community and started asking about pro bono work. A local school put me in touch with a nonprofit that needed auction material. They looked at my portfolio and agreed that this is what they wanted. I started working on their project over the next few months & all the way down the line, my work was approved, approved, approved. They said, ‘We love it.’ And then, on the day the files were due, I got a phone call from the person I was working with; she said, “My committee has rejected it and we’re going to hire somebody else to finish the job.” I was devastated. All my work was going to be thrown away.
The wise Larry Asher, who was from the school that had connected me with the nonprofit, said – let’s get you guys together & talk about what went wrong and how we can prevent this from happening again. That conversation led to Larry putting together some information on doing pro bono work.
Around the same time, I joined the AIGA (American Institute for Graphic Arts) & put on an event to talk about pro bono work. I invited Larry Asher & another local designer, Tony Gable, who is well-known for his philanthropic work, to speak at the event. After they were done, the president of the AIGA said to me, “Okay, it’s your turn to go up.” And I was like “No! I’m shy I can’t do that.” He said, “This is your opportunity to get people on your side.”
I went up and said – “I’m putting together a group of people, we’re going to call it Art with Heart, and we’re going to use design and creativity to make a difference in kids lives in our city.” From that event, where 80 people came, 7 showed up and said we want to help.
That’s great. One of your first efforts as a group was to adopt a soup kitchen and serve creative meals to homeless kids. Can you tell us about that first day at the soup kitchen?
We brought artists out of their studios to create these amazing meals for kids. Usually these kids would get things like meatloaf from the sweet women at church and they were a little tired of it. We bought them vegan options and gluten-free options. They were so excited. At first, these kids were a little scary. They were protective of themselves. But I think the food won them over pretty quickly. They gave us a standing ovation!
And the designers loved being able to do something physical and creative. That was our launching point to do artwork & creative workshops with homeless kids.
Tell me about the first book Oodles of Doodles that Art with Heart published.
One day my boss at my design firm said – there’s a woman I want you to meet, she has a remarkable story to tell. So I met with her. She had a daughter who had been diagnosed with cancer when she was twelve months old. She was four now and still in and out of the hospital. She was going through all these scary procedures and the cancer kept coming back.
From that conversation, came an idea – Art with Heart should be able to help kids in hospitals who are facing the same sort of thing this little girl, Haley, was facing – the fear, the anxiety, being alone when your parents can’t be there.
One night I went to bed very frustrated and I woke up in the morning and had had this amazing dream. It was about bringing together all these artists & therapists to create this book that would help their heart. While in the hospital, their bodies are well taken care of but their hearts are not necessarily.
The next day I had lunch with this person who was on the board of the first illustrator’s conference. I told him the idea and he said, “We should totally do it!”. He became my partner – we brought together artists that we hand-picked from all over the world. We worked with nurses, psychologists and child welfare people to come up with the content. The very first book was called “Oodles of Doodles”. It had illustrations from 97 illustrators and designers. We gave away the first 20,000 to help 20,000 kids.
Tell me about the time when you finally quit your job and decided to focus all your energies on Art with Heart.
In the midst of creating Oodles of Doodles, Art with Heart became a nonprofit. I quit my job & thought I’d have to freelance because Art with Heart couldn’t afford to pay me. I thought – I’ll do what I need to do, out of my basement. That year ended up being – remarkably – the most financially helpful year of my life. We were able to pay off our debt, purchase our house – it was an incredible year. That gave me the gift of being able to go into Art with Heart without debt.
So you were doing better financially, freelancing out of your basement! What were you doing differently?
I think when you freelance, you get to charge more. I was doing the same amount of work but I was able to charge the going rate.
With “Oodles of Doodles” there were nearly 100 designers & illustrators who contributed to it. In your latest book, “Draw It Out”, you worked with 27 experts from areas of counseling, social work and art therapy.
Can you tell me about one person who you’ve worked, without whom a book or a project wouldn’t have been the same?
There is an amazing woman named Rosalie Frankel who co-authored “Draw It Out” with me. She’s one of the first people I talked to when I was thinking about “Oodles of Doodles”. She’s an art therapist working at The Children’s Hospital. She, through the years, has looked at every single book before we’ve released & given us advice and counsel. One of the most important things in any project is to find out what you don’t know and find the people who do know that so you can bring them on your team. For example, she’d tell us to change a particular face that an illustrator has drawn, because it could be a trigger for a child in trauma. Her advice and counsel has been tremendous. And she’s been doing this pro bono.
Art with Heart has published 5 books and launched several programs that have helped nearly 100,000 kids. I even saw pictures of kids in South Africa that are using your books.
They are many, many testimonials online from kids – how they were feeling before they read the book compared to after – the Crappy to Happy scale, as it’s called. There’s a testimonial from a 56-year old woman who used your book to help her through post-traumatic stress disorder!
Is there a particular experience with a child that has moved you deeply?
There’s a girl named Chanelle who was diagnosed with a very bad disease that not only changes how you feel on the inside but also how you look on the outside. As a teenager who was very body-conscious, it really affected her emotionally. Her child life specialist had given her a Chill & Spill book & she used it through many surgeries. She not only used it to do the activities but also as a way to connect with people. The guy who came to give her shots in the middle of the night – she would have him write a note of encouragement for her in her Chill & Spill book.
She filled out the survey at the back of the book & sent it to us. On our Crappy to Happy scale, she said – before I started this book I felt Crappy & after I finished this book I felt Happy and then underneath, she wrote, “Beyond Belief.”
We sent her a creativity kit to say thank you. In response she wrote us a 2-page letter about how it had changed her life! It included how once she got better, she turned this journal into much more. She joined the Year Book Club at school, she was asked to do a journal, she was asked to do interviews. It changed who she was as a person! To this day we still keep in contact. I adore her.
That’s a really powerful story. You also told me about the first letter you got back from a child & how that was special. Can you tell us about that?
Our very first letter was extraordinarily special to me. I was trembling when I opened it. The page said “Draw a picture of how this made you feel.”
She had written her name was Sarah, she was 12 years old and she had leukemia. When a child has leukemia, you know they have to deal with so many invasive treatments. But she had drawn a picture that showed how this book made her feel – it was a happy sun, a happy worm, a happy bird and this adorable self-portrait. The book had made her happy, in the midst of this really hard thing that was happening in her life, that may take her life.
It was a very big honor to receive that letter. I cherish every letter that we get from kids.
Can you think back to a big win, a celebratory moment for Art with Heart?
Art with Heart is peppered with them! Miracles & celebrations and unexpected blessings.
One unexpected blessing that happened early on which I’m still amazed at – we had divided the printing of “Oodles of Doodles” up between many printers. One of the printers called up and said – I can’t do the 10,000 that you want me to do. I’m going to fall short by 750. So we were going to be left with uneven books. The next day I received a phone call that said, “Hey, I just found out, there is this paper house that is about to throw away all of this paper, unless you want to use it.” It was exactly the right amount of paper that we needed to finish the project. That was just amazing.
Through the years – donors, supporters, volunteers, advisers – all these people who’ve come up and said “I want to help.” They’re all moments to celebrate.
Can you remember any moment that was painful?
Every time you write a grant. You put your whole heart into it & you think “This is the one. This is the one that’s going to get us to the next level.” Three months later you get a letter that says “Sorry! We didn’t pick you.” It’s devastating each time.
Then there are the events. You think this is going to be that event, where somebody in the audience is going to be the exact right person who’s going to make all the difference in the world & write a huge check! And then it doesn’t happen. Or it snows and half the people stay home. Those are moments where you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing? Are we even going to be in existence next year?”
Then we get a phone call from a child, or then we get a phone call that connects us to the right person. I think it’s really about perseverance.
What’s your best piece of advice to share with CEOs of other nonprofits, about making an ask for money?
If you don’t ask, the answer is no. So A – go for it. And B – have a really compelling reason why they should help. It’s not that you are needy or that your organization needs the money, it’s that your mission needs it.
When we talk to donors about what we do, there’s very little not to like – it’s kids, it’s art and it’s filling an emotional need in the world. They get excited about helping kids in this very unique way. Be confident about your mission & personalize it for them.
What’s your favorite piece of advice you’d like to give to someone starting a nonprofit?
One, know what you’re about to give up. And be okay with it. A new business, a new nonprofit, a new project – you have to pour yourself into it. If you can only do it a little bit, it’s probably not going to get what it needs to succeed.
Also, make sure that your idea doesn’t already exist in the world. If it does, that group could probably use you. One of the things Art with Heart does is – we don’t go out and find our own kids. We collaborate with other nonprofits that have the kids. They just don’t have the expertise in doing art. We bring them a new skill set.
Photo Credits: artwithheart.org, searchformeaning
Here’s how to get in touch with Steffanie & Art with Heart:
If you’re in the Seattle area, Art with Heart’s annual Color of Hope event is coming up in November.