In May of 2011, 23-year-old Tyler Lorenzi spent his last hours committed to helping his friends survive from a boating accident in the frigid waters of Virginia’s James River, before he tragically passed away. Tyler, who grew up in Mill Valley, truly lived by the “Life is Good” philosophy; applying his optimistic outlook, infectious energy, bright smile, and pure heart to everything he did. Inspired by the way Tyler lived his life, seven of his good friends from Northwestern University came together to create a movement, CommuniTyler, which aims to spread the incredible spirit that Tyler possessed to the rest of the world. Through volunteer projects and Do Good Challenges, CommuniTyler operates on the simple, yet powerful mantras that Tyler lived by: “What did you do today that was fun?”; “whatever you do, do good”; and “make a difference and a friend.” Through their nationwide community events, CommuniTyler hopes to inspire and foster social connections through these simple principles Tyler lived by. We all aspire to do good and be happy in this world, and CommuniTyler reminds us to do just that.
The seven founders, all of whom have been friends with Tyler since they met during their freshman year at Northwestern University (most of them since the first day): Allison Wessel, Andrew Wien, Meredith Laitos, Teresa Fox, Dre Collier, Matt Combs, Jamie Kwasnieski.
Check out our interview with one of the seven founders, Allison Wessel, and Bay Area Community Coordinator Frank Bauch below:
How exactly did you guys come up with CommuniTyler?
Allison: In the wake of Tyler’s death, we were all obviously really shocked. Once the shock began to subside a little, we tried to figure out a way to channel all of our grief, anger, and all of that negative stuff, into something good. We wanted to create something that would last; something that did right by Tyler, that really reflected him and his personality. I remember we, the founders of CommuniTyler, were sitting in Tyler’s parents’ living room, in Mill Valley, with a group of friends who have known each other since Freshman year of school. And Ty’s mom brought up this story, about how when Tyler was in college he was partying and getting into trouble; of course, just like all of us (did at that age), and was eventually assigned to do community service at a soup kitchen as a punishment of sorts. Tyler only needed to complete a few hours, but once he was done with those initial hours, he was like, “I love doing this, I loved helping at this homeless shelter that serves people food and meals” and he kept going. I’ve been to this soup kitchen, and you have to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to participate, but that didn’t phase Tyler; he did it every single week, even though he didn’t need to do it anymore. It was like, out of this bad experience came a lot of good. So, when we came up with CommuniTyler, we really wanted to focus in on community service. We wanted to give people a way to, what we call, “make a difference and make a friend.” Tyler was all about doing, and being social; he was the type of person to strike up a conversation with total stranger. We thought community service would be a really great format for doing just that.
What traits about Tyler were so inspiring?
Allison: He just had this incredible energy about him. Being around Tyler, there was just this aura; this presence that he brought to every situation that was always positive. Tyler was always smiling, always looking on the bright side of life. I’ve never saw him angry or mad. Tyler just had this way of finding the good in every situation; and not just the good, but the playfulness as well. He was always approaching the most mundane tasks with an attitude of, how do I make this more fun? How do I make this more playful? I think people who just saw Tyler walking on the street were inspired by him, because he had this big goofy grin on his face and was genuinely enjoying whatever he was doing.
Frank: There are so many different ways, and examples that show how Tyler brought positivity to everyone around him. Just a couple things that give you a sense…here’s a guy, who, when he went skiing, went wearing a gigantic Santa Claus suit. He was entirely recognizable anywhere on the slopes. Here’s a guy, who, when we all lived together one summer during college, was working for Sharpie, and was fascinated by the ability to just draw all day. He was the person who would come home from a long day of work, and still have a bunch of energy left. Whether it was cooking dinner, going to the park/beach, he was always the person to bring energy to the whole group. It’s impossible for me to think about Tyler, without thinking of the incredible happiness and positivity he possessed. I can’t think about him in a negative way; it’s always a positive thought when I think about Tyler.
Allison: He was so social. Tyler was living in Hampton, VA, a small town in the middle of nowhere (during the last year of his life). He was a little bit down when he first got there, but soon changed his outlook. His philosophy became, “It’s a great place to meet someone.” At the local grocery store he would strike up a conversation with the sample dude, thinking maybe this guy will become my new best buddy. Tyler always approached situations like this. We try to emulate his spirit of openness in our volunteer events, inviting any, and all who want to participate, to join in. We want people to mingle, invite their friends that may have never known Tyler. It’s all about getting to know one another as people, that are like minded in terms of wanting to do some good, have fun, and be positive. And what better way to do this than through a fun volunteering event? I find, that as a person living in a city, it’s hard to meet new people. We feel like CommuniTyler is a great place to meet a friend; and that’s something that Tyler would have loved and would have approached.
How is CommuniTyler organized?
Allison: There are seven of us that make up the board of directors. We coordinate the macro dates, like what day an event will occur. The Board then reaches out to our delegated community coordinators, people like Frank and 19 others, who are in charge of CommuniTyler operations in participating cities around the country. It’s an open forum, so there are cities that are really small, where only one or two people are doing it, and then there are cities that are really big, like NYC where there are 40 people participating. The community coordinators for each participatory city are responsible for picking a project for their respective volunteers to work on during our national event days. For example, while one group of participants plants flowers in Baton Rouge, LA, another group might be weeding trails in Mill Valley, CA, at the same time another group is handing out water to runners in Boston, MA. We feel that by allowing each community to operate with a freedom of choice, when it comes to their project selection, a really great sense of comradery can be developed amongst the volunteers. We’re planning on organizing these really big events every 6 months to once a year. We’d like to do smaller ones each month, called “Do Good Challenges”, just to try to keep the momentum up, keep people thinking about doing good, and harnessing Tyler’s spirit more than just once a year.
What is a “Do Good Challenge”?
Allison: It’s still a work in progress. Basically, through the “Do Good Challenges”, we want to create ways to inspire folks to do good throughout the year, in very casual ways, that don’t require a lot of coordination and commitment. We want the challenges to capture what Ty was all about, an approach to life that was really fun and social. For example, one month, we’ll send out an email blast and a Facebook post, challenging people to “chalk the sidewalk around where you live with inspirational messages.” So, a Do Good Challenge, in a sense, is just a little nugget of inspiration to help spread a little bit of joy in someone else’s life.
Frank: I would add, that Tyler always had this sign on his desk that read, “What did you do today that was fun?” He used the sign as inspiration to make the most of every situation. When he read it, he was reminded that no matter where he was, or what he was doing, he could have fun. He always wanted to look back on his day and say he did something fun. I think that’s part of what Allison is talking about, with the “Do Good Challenges”, we just really want to spread that fun spirit of Tyler’s with people.
What was your first inaugural event like?
Allison: We held our first event on December 3rd of last year (2011). We had about 400 volunteers in 14 cities. Since we allow the city coordinators to decide on the project their respective city chapter will partake in, there was a lot of diversity among the projects. One project was removing invasive species from one of the state parks near Northwestern University, another was setting up a Lego camp, one of our other chapters setup painting groups at their respective community center; the projects were all across the map. A lot of them were environmental in nature, but there were also book drives and other educational events as well.
What are your T-shirts all about?
Allison: With our first round of T-shirts, we weren’t selling them for a profit, we just really wanted to get as many people as possible wearing them; and get more people to our website to learn what we’re all about. Eventually, the profits from our shirts will go to funding our projects. For example, a group in New Orleans is doing a project where they will be outside weeding and gardening. So, they’ll need trash bags, gloves, etc. and the organization they are working at can’t supply them. So, they’ll put in a request with us, and we’ll fund it; anything they need to get the job done.
Can you tell us a little bit about the documentary, Ty’s List?
Allison: Both the director, and producer went to Northwestern. The documentary is separate from Communityler, but the whole project is such a testament to Tyler’s reach. The director, who is a junior now at Northwestern, was just a freshman when he met Tyler, who was a fifth-year senior. They rarely crossed paths, but Tyler left such a mark on him, that after Tyler’s death, the director was inspired to create a documentary about him. They just recently made their Kickstarter goal of $12,000 to make the film.
What are you guys working on now? Do you have any projects in line for the future?
Allison: We are currently working on the paperwork to get our 5013(c) (Non-Profit) status. Other than that, we are just trying to figure out how to make this thing grow; how to make it bigger, get more people involved. We’re in the early stages of setting up a city competition, to see which city can get the most total volunteers, as well as which city has the highest rate of volunteer growth. We are also really focused on developing the monthly “Do Good Challenges”. At the moment, we are trying to get a roadmap in place for the challenges; just figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It’s really a learning experience for all of us. From the seven founding board members, to the community coordinators, to all of the volunteers, everyone involved with CommuniTyler is so passionate about what they are doing, we all just want to help make CommuniTyler the best it can be; so we can make a real difference.
What’s the best way for people to participate?
Allison: Check out the website, CommuniTyler.org. There is a registration page, which we check regularly, to keep people updated. We invite anyone that’s interested in volunteering to join in; whether you knew Tyler or not, it’s always great to welcome in a new friend.