In the next twenty-four hours…

  • 3,506 Teens will run away
  • 1,439 Teens will attempt suicide
  • 2,795 Teenage girls will become pregnant
  • 15,006 Teens will use drugs for the first time. (Teen Help)

Every week, Karla Stephens-Tolstoy, CEO of Tokii, would arrive with her therapy dog, Nucky, to spend an afternoon listening and connecting with a group of at-risk teens at a local high school that for many of them represented their “last chance”.  Some had come there from abusive homes or had already been kicked out of a handful of other schools while others had been in and out of youth correctional facilities.  Each had more life experience and seen more hardships than anyone should see in their lifetime, let alone while still a teenager.

After hearing the tragic and sometimes gruesome stories about their lives, Karla wanted to end their time together by offering something symbolic of how much they had touched her life.  She felt the need to offer them some type of message of hope.

Karla decided to commission an art piece that would portray their journey, through addiction, abuse, mental illness, self-harm and even homelessness, toward the joyous, triumphant and colorfully bright future she hoped for them.  She wanted the teens to feel noticed and she wanted them to know their efforts toward success did have the power to help them towards a better life.

Karla approached artist, Jill Henrichsen, who is well known for creating intricate hand-drawn motifs that blend together images and words into a stunning picture.  She had previously done work for Wearable Therapy, creating our 100 Roads to Happiness and Life is Easy designs, among others.  For this project, Karla and Jill brainstormed on images that might be able to express the struggles these teens had already been through as well as the happy future that Karla wished for them.  They settled on the image of a tree.  Jill explains, “(the tree) gets stronger and blossoms as they deal with their demons.  From there, the muddy black and grey colors and storms would transition to color, blossoms and quotes/lyrics of hope.”

Because of all of the details of this design and because they chose to weave the names of each of the teens that inspired this project, it took Jill a few months to complete the challenge and produce the magnificent motif.  She encountered some challenges along the way, worrying that the full scope of her idea was not coming through. “It had to demonstrate the transition from darkness to light in the journey. It had to show some of the deepest elements of despair while bringing out the metamorphosis from the emotional and reality of the teen’s “nuclear winter” to a beautiful clear spring day. I was worried that I wouldn’t capture the feeling and transition clearly.” -Jill


The finished product was exactly what Jill and Karla had first imagined and so much more.  Upon closer inspection of the piece, the details the artist brilliantly included; the colorful side of hope combined with the lovely phrases and inspirational quotes, work perfectly to convey a strong message.

From the artist:

It may seem all is lost, but it is not, even though it is hard to see at the time. I often use the analogy of a Seurat painting. Up close when we’re in the thick of it, all we see are a multitude of muddy dots. It is when we step back and see the big picture that it is revealed that it is part of a process.

While she was working on the piece, Jill found herself reflecting on her own life and past.  “Parts of (creating this motif) were more difficult than others. I drew from my own life experiences (despite what my middle school students and teenage daughter believe, I was a teen once), what I’ve witnessed in my years as an educator for the junior high to high school level students, and what certain song lyrics and imagery have brought inspiration. It was emotional at times to think back on those moments and feelings.”

On Karla’s last day at the school, she arrived with Nucky and 50 individual copies of the motif.  Each was personalized with the teen’s name.  Karla explains, “It was so difficult to say goodbye to them but I could never leave my emotions at the door and you’re not allowed to get too close in these types of environments.  So, I just wanted them to know how much they had changed me, that they were so brave and that they gave me a lot of joy and a lot of humbling.  I didn’t think words were enough so I wanted them to have something that could remind them that they are special and have value.”

Upon leaving, Karla had the idea to continue helping teens in similar situations with the Tokii Teens @ Risk Project.  This initiative offers information about issues that affect millions of teens throughout Canada and the world today, and partners with Wearable Therapy and other organizations to provide outreach and donations to teens at risk.

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