Graphic designers have always amazed me.
Their creative skill and eye for detail – paired with the seemingly effortless ability to make pretty a gray blob of text – is something I’ve long admired. It began during the years working at my college newspaper. The graphic designers quickly became my allies. The more time they had to concept our newspaper each week, the better it looked. When I simply gave them the pieces and got out of the way, magic would happen on those pages.
It showed with each satisfying thump of a new bundle of papers, delivered fresh and warm from our local printer.
Although I can’t always specifically explain good graphic design versus bad, I know it when I see it. It’s unmistakable.
The work of SecretPenguin in Omaha has long caught my eye. They’ve designed websites, logos, and other materials for some truly great brands, organizations, movements, and people.
But the work of SecretPenguin Creative Director Dave Nelson – a different kind of work, mind you – inspired me to ask Dave to share his pretty powerful story. It started with a Facebook posting last month and evolved into the creation of The Unofficial SecretPenguin Foundation.
Dave and his team’s charity wasn’t just the result of a few extra dollars in their bank account. No, its origination was much more than that, reaching back to Dave’s younger days when he experienced bullying.
I asked Dave to tell me more about that time in his life and how it impacts the choices he makes – both personal and professional – each and every day. After reading Dave’s story, I hope it inspires you to look at your life, your community, your workplace, and consider the ways you can make a difference.
Tell me more about the decision (and the general timeline) to give away money the first time on Facebook.
It started when we were looking to take on more clients. We built a website to send to marketing directors, and set aside a monthly budget of $150 for Facebook ads to promote this site.
We went to buy ads on Facebook, and Facebook had given us $150 in credit for ads! So we decided to post about it and give the money to someone that might need it. We posted it March 28 with a two-day deadline. We received around 15 messages.
To be honest, it’s kind of a long story of what inspired us to make the decision.
On a larger level, we’re consistently inspired by the generosity of the community here in Omaha: from what our friends are doing within the community to the non-profit clients we get to work with.
On a personal level, I was bullied through high school for being a skateboarder and then a guy threatened to kill me and my family when I was 19. The feeling of helplessness was horrible. After I got past that, I decided to dedicate my life to trying to help others in some way.
When I skateboarded for a living, I used to get extra products from my endorsements to give to kids that couldn’t afford them. I got pretty involved in various kid’s lives, even to the point of taking them to school when their parents were missing or hungover from the night before.
People in the skateboard community would call me pretty consistently to talk about issues or just to vent. One guy was calling quite a bit. I missed one of his phone calls and didn’t get around to calling him back for a week. I later found out that during that week he committed suicide.
It tore me up, and still does when I think about it. After that, I was afraid to allow myself to get too involved in peoples’ lives.
I’m on the board for a non-profit skateboard park called Bay198 Skatepark that’s also behind Skate For Change. I’ve been very inspired by the founders Mike and Amber Smith with all that they’re doing. I feel like I’m not alone with dealing with some of the issues that skateboarders have that are beyond what I can help with. They’ve built up a whole network of support for the community.
Dave Nelson, right, with Ryan Sheckler in March 2012 at the official launch of Skate for Change in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Instagram)
The night before we posted about the $150, I had a conversation with Mike, and I decided to stop being afraid and do what I can with what I have.
Did you discuss what type of feedback or response you might receive?
No. It just felt right, and we wanted to do it and see where it might lead, so we did it. Seems like that’s how most of our internal SecretPenguin projects go. We have an idea and if we feel like it would benefit the community or if we’d have fun doing it, we just run with it to see what happens.
What was the response?
It was overwhelming. We had 15 heartfelt messages within those two days of our first post from people in need. The response and support for The SecretPenguin Unofficial Foundation has been overwhelming, too.
I seriously tear up everytime someone contacts us to help. A few people want to donate to it, some want to match funds, Blue Sushi Sake Grill has already sent a sizeable gift card to a family through this.
It’s truly been amazing to experience first-hand the warmth of our community.
What replies stick out the most to you?
One skateboarder who lives on the streets and couch-surfs contacted us about paying his phone bill for a month. As I talked with him more, he shared with me:
– His mom got addicted to meth and left when he was 10.
– At 10 years old, he had to feed himself, get himself to school, etc.
– He finally got into foster care and his foster parents did crack.
– He got kicked out of his foster house when he was 16.
– He’s now 21 and has been living in the streets ever since.
– He doesn’t have an I.D. since he doesn’t have an address, so he can’t get a job. He’s been selling drugs to pay his phone bill and get some food.
We ended up paying for three months of his phone bill so he didn’t have to rely on selling drugs. Mike Smith from Bay198 Skatepark came up to help. Through Bay198, we took him grocery shopping for food he could keep in his backpack for a while, and then we started the process to get him an I.D. so he can get a job if he wants, and also took photos of his feet to send to a doctor that will help him get his toes fixed so he can continue skateboarding and be healthy.
Life is hard for everyone, there’s no doubt about that. And I hope we’re able to give some people the little boost they may need to get past some tough obstacles in life.
What did you learn from the experience?
I learned we have a very caring community. More so than I imagined. I also learned that there’s a lot more people hurting and struggling than I knew. Even people that I see on a consistent basis.
Why is something like this beneficial for a small business such as SecretPenguin?
I think it’s beneficial because you really get to know and feel a part of your own community. You see the good in people, and it’s incredibly motivating and uplifting.
Tell us more about your other charity work. I think I’ve seen Instagram photos of you helping the homeless in Omaha.
Oh yeah! That’s a thing called Skate for Change that was started through Bay198 Skatepark in Lincoln.
The idea is simple, it’s just skateboarders giving back to the community in some way each week.
You can become a member to help support it at http://skateforchange.org. You receive a membership I.D. in the form of a skateboard, and a four-pack of water: with the idea that you now have the supplies to do Skate for Change in your own community. But you don’t need to be a member to be a part of Skate for Change, of course.
Finish this sentence: The world would be a better place if …
…if I could eat peanut butter and jellies every single day and wash it down with Red Bull. Oh, and if we all were more loving, patient, and open with each other.