By Amy Wolff
Editor’s Note: in 2017, Amy Wolf anonymously staked 20 encouraging yard signs around her small community of Newberg, Oregon. This small act of love quickly blossomed into a global movement. Some of the content of today’s post comes from people impacted by the movement.
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.”
My heart was pounding in my chest as our car lurched up the rough dirt road in a village called Mbabe in Rwanda. Today I would meet Jeska and Rosine.
Our family had written them letters for a few years now, although it was mostly their mother, Jacqueline, who wrote back (Jeska and Rosine were only seven and eight at the time). We had signed up to sponsor their monthly school fees, choosing two sisters around the same ages as our daughters, Harper and Avery.
Our car turned a sharp corner and immediately pulled over to the side of the road. To our left was a small but steep hill in front of a mud-brick house. They stood there waiting for us. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough, but as I approached them, I realized I had no clue what to do. They looked nervous. I was nervous! So naturally, I gave them awkward high fives. Their mother, on the other hand, passionately and incessantly hugged me and kissed my cheeks. Finally, we settled into plastic chairs in their tiny front room as my translator and friend Ephaste helped facilitate a conversation.
I learned that their father had left them years ago, and shortly after leaving, he passed away. Jacqueline was a struggling single mother renting out a small mud house with no car and no consistent income. She was abandoned and vulnerable, as were the girls. I had no idea.
At one point in the conversation, Ephaste, who works at the child sponsorship agency, paused to speak to me directly. He explained that our sponsorship was much more than school fees. Our support was interpreted as love, and that love filled a rather large painful gap in this family. A stranger across the world, knowing very little about them, cared enough to send support.
They felt seen. They felt chosen. They felt loved. Someone believed they mattered.
Indeed. Which is why I’m grateful that I’m able to return to visit them every other year—not just to tell them they matter but to show them. And they make me feel like I matter too. Every year we feel more and more like family (thankfully, no more awkward high fives).
Do you matter? Are you seen? Are you heard? Are you important?
I imagine that these questions start when we’re young, really young. And if you’ve grown up without a steady positive voice in your life, the deprivation of validation may have messed with your sense of self-worth. It’s so fragile. Something as simple as a nasty comment spoken at recess in third grade about no one liking you can affect your whole life. Unfortunately, our brains are wired for confirmation bias—changing our mind is hard when we’ve believed a lie for a long time.
Whether your parents belittled you, your partner left you, or you simply feel like you don’t fit in, it’s easy to feel invisible and unwanted. When a situation becomes really dark, we can start to question whether anyone would notice if we were gone. Do we really matter?
Maybe you’re living in a retirement home, feeling cut off from the world. Or you’re clocking in and out of work without one person asking how you’re doing. Or you’re misunderstood because of your physical limitations. Or you feel like the only single, kidless person at church. Or your HIV status makes you feel ostracized.
Or perhaps, like this young man, you’re navigating a world that misunderstands your developmental or mental disorders:
As one who struggles with autism spectrum disorder and bipolar
disorder, thank you. I joined a youth outreach program that uses
your signs to do a weekly sign rally downtown where we hold up
signs for traffic on Fridays. It gives me more strength to push
forward in my efforts to erase the stigmas of both autism and
mental illness, as I have borne the brunt of both. You shouldn’t
be ashamed for what you deal with, nor should you be ashamed
to ask for help. You aren’t “less of a man or woman.”
Do you matter? Yes, the answer is yes. A big, obnoxiously loud yes. The hard part is genuinely believing it of ourselves, especially in a culture that is less than inclusive, generous, or understanding at times.
It never dawned on me that military members can feel misunderstood too until I received this message:
It’s no secret that our veterans and military members are
struggling. Our jobs can be chaotic, take us away from our
families, and put us into situations that require extreme
grit—and most times, it’s a thankless job. There is a stigma
that’s associated with being a military member—that you always
have to be completely hardened, constantly training against the
next adversary, and ready to fight at a moment’s notice. And
while that’s partly true, it’s also important to remember that we
are human beings. Human beings are imperfect. Military members
hurt and struggle just like everyone else. People are hardwired
to create meaning, and it’s in our darkest moments that we need
that meaning the most. Sometimes the only thing a person needs is
a positive sign.
Here at our installation, our top priority is to take care of
our people, and we do this through multiple avenues—but this
movement has been a focal point for us. We show up at three
of our gates at 0600 hours, in 20-degree weather, hold the
signs, and wave to every person coming into the base for the next
two hours. Our favorite thing to do is to watch their faces as
they drive toward us. They are curious about what we’re doing,
and then they read the signs. The confusion melts away, and smiles
come over their faces. It’s at that point that you know you’ve
made a connection. What was just an early morning drive to
work turned into something a bit nicer. It never ceases to amaze
us how impactful the signs are. The reactions to this simple
gesture show just how much our people need this—to be told
You may feel too different, too broken, too misunderstood, or too invisible, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you are important. Your worth is not tied to the evaluation of others or whether or not you fit into a “normal” box.
Your perspectives matter. Your feelings matter. Your experiences matter. Your disappointments matter. Your hard work matters. Your creativity matters. Your fears matter. Your ideas matter.
Taken from Signs of Hope: How Small Acts of Love Can Change Your World by Amy Wolff. Click here to learn more about this book.
Changing the world—or at least your corner of it—is easier than you think.
With so much suffering in our communities and in the world, it can feel impossible to make an impact. “What good can I possibly do?” we ask.
Amy Wolff, a busy mom and small business owner, often felt this way—and didn’t feel qualified to connect and uplift others. But one day, after hearing about several suicides and suicide attempts in her community, she printed 20 yard signs with hopeful messages and anonymously placed them throughout her city. This small action sparked a global movement of encouragement, hope, and love, which spread to 50 states and 27 countries in just 18 months.
Signs of Hope is an intimate collection of stories from Amy’s personal life, as well as people impacted by the movement, about the power of hope and love in the midst of suffering. This book discusses:
- The drain of compassion fatigue
- Why we should show up imperfectly to help others
- How to claim hope for ourselves
- Practical ideas of how to respond to suffering
- Strategies of how to love people who are “different”
- Resilience when love-spreading efforts backfire
- How to raise a compassionate generation
- The science of hope
Signs of Hope is your catalyst for doing something today . . . because there’s no perfect time to help others. The time is now.
Amy Wolff is a Speaker Coach for a consulting company she co-owns with her father and a TEDx Speaker Coach. In 2017 she accidentally started a global movement of spreading love through simple yard signs. She enjoys engaging in difficult conversations with unlikely friends, having vacuum lines in her carpet, nurturing a ridiculous amount of house plants, traveling with her daughters and husband, and leading teams to Rwanda. She and her family live in Portland, Oregon.
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May 14, 2021