"She'll never know how much she inspired me": 'Color, Give, Smile' Founder shares startup experience

After my last blog post exploring how art can assist the elderly, I was interested to know more about the origins of  'Color, Give, Smile' (which began in Illinois), and how it had evolved over time. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with their Founder, Jen, who gave me a rare insight into her journey through the inception, and creation of her startup. It goes to show that if you have an idea you're passionate about, and willing to work with, anyone can start their own  volunteering initiative.


What kind of experience/s inspired the idea for 'Color, Give, Smile'?

 Back in 2010 my grandpa slowly became less mobile. In order to "encourage" him to exercise, my grandma asked all of his grandchildren to draw pictures of people doing the exercises he needed to do. She also asked us to do other things like write letters (even though we lived near him) just so he would have mail, and create t-shirts to give him.

 Well, I had no idea the shirt I would give him would become one of his favourite things. All I did was draw some caricatures of each of his grandkids, and then some objects that reminded him of us. For some of us that was cats, soccer, the sun, lacrosse, etc. He never wore that shirt because he wanted to keep it by his bed every day instead.

 I was really flattered, and would always make an effort to bring him drawings or photos when we'd get together. I'm telling you, nothing beat that shirt, though!

 

Man, I wish I had a shirt with cats on it. After that, you worked in aged care for a time; what was your experience like in the senior’s scene?

 I started working at my local senior centre doing marketing for exercise classes, art classes, and banquets. It was there I met so many amazing people. I say everyone should work with seniors at least once in their lives; it gives you a lot of perspective.

 The people I worked with were a mix of very fit seniors and very fragile seniors. My grandpa was very blessed; working there made me realize most of them [seniors] had family that had moved away.

 

 As well as marketing, you also managed volunteers there; were there many volunteers in the centre, and what kind of volunteering would they do?

 So many! Volunteers committed to teaching (and sharing) art, from woodworking to knitting, from oil paints to watercolours. I was told that there was a shelf to collect knitting and crochet donations from some of the seniors, and a woman picked them up. The donations were going to local kids who didn't have hats and mittens. I assumed the lady who organized this was from a foster care agency, or something similar. 

 After a year of collecting hats and mittens on occasion, and calling the woman who would pick them up, we got to talking and I realized she wasn't from a social agency- she was just a lady on her lunch break picking up mittens!

Me: "You're just a person? Who decided to collect hats and mittens to give to kids?"
Her: "Yep."

 And that's how I learned about micro-volunteering. She'll never know how much she inspired me.

 

Wow, that’s amazing! It’s heart-warming to meet people who will find ways to do good, just because they care about a cause. What did you do next?

 Eventually I had to find work that was full-time. I still talk about my work with the seniors a lot because of how much they taught me; I felt really bad that I wasn't still doing things for them. 

“I say everyone should work with seniors at least once in their lives; it gives you a lot of perspective.”

 I started asking senior homes if they would like cards or art. They very enthusiastically thanked me for thinking of them and said they would love to give that to the seniors, that they would enjoy them.

 I did this independently and at some point it just came to me to create a website. It was this idea that nagged at me to start a website, just to encourage the idea to other people. I asked other people what they thought about the idea, and everyone loved it. 

 

That sounds like the makings of the 'Color, Give, Smile' I see today. Were there similar organisations out there at that point?

 When I Googled to see if there was anything similar, I found an organisation called 'Snail Mail for Seniors' that sent cards to senior citizens. I contacted the woman in charge and would you believe it, she was retiring the next month and closing the organisation! It went from me feeling spiritually inspired, to me knowing I had to continue on this work in some way.

 

Well, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve done that and then some. Was your grandfather able to see what you were doing with 'Color, Give, Smile' before he passed last year?

 Our last conversation was him enjoying some photos of family that he thought were funny. He really liked funny photos, colours, and photos of animals. He didn't know anything about what I was doing with 'Color, Give, Smile', because he didn't understand much by then. Most people I know don't know about it; I'm a big believer that volunteering is a humble thing that isn't something I talk about, unless it's encouraging someone else. 

 

That’s understandable; after all, volunteering can be a very personal experience. Anything you’d want the recipients of the artwork around the world to know?

 I always remember years ago when I worked a corporate job I really didn't like. There was this giant photo of a girl with a bunch of kittens on one wall (the business sold products to tween girls). Every time I saw that photo it broke up the stress in my day and put me in a better mood.

 I can only hope that the artwork we send does that for the seniors who receive them. I think it honestly also helps their families, too, when they come to visit, as they are stressed out as well.

 Thankyou to Jen, for sharing her story, and for starting such a thoughtful initiative. Jen has a knack for connecting Cause Corps with aged care facilities around the world, so that we can continue running 'Color, Give, Smile' events all over. 

To find a local Cause Corps Color, Give, Smile event in your city, check our Meetup page

 For further reading about volunteering, Jen has published a handful of her own blog posts about volunteering on her site, KittenCreative.  The two below are particularly relevant:

 You Can Start a Volunteer Initiative in Your Pajamas

 When Talking to Elderly Relatives Can Be Hard

To find out more about Color, Give, Smile, see the website


Phillip has an undying love for willow trees, and desperately wants to spend a night with the ghost of Emily Brontë. A recent USYD grad, when he's not buried in a book, barbell, or yoga mat, you'll find him making friends with stranger's animals, travelling, or trying to convince people astrology is a thing.
Phillip Kapeleris