Grace Berbig is the kind of person who pays for those behind her in the drive-through line. She's been known to bring flowers to her favorite barista, just to say thanks.
So it's no surprise that the big-hearted 20-year-old is running a nonprofit with the philosophy that you're never too young to change the world through kindness.
Berbig, of Long Lake, is president and founder of Letters of Love, a nonprofit that's already delivered more than 100,000 handmade cards and notes of encouragement to children with cancer and other serious illnesses. The club, which began when Berbig was a student at Orono High School, now has active chapters in 30 Minnesota high schools, in addition to a presence in elementary schools, high schools and colleges in 12 other states.
International clubs are found in Austria, Greece, Italy, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Tanzania.
Letters of Love clubs meet virtually or in person to create cards that offer emotional encouragement to seriously sick kids and their families. Berbig described her vision of transforming thousands of drab, gray hospital rooms into comforting and colorful spaces with heartfelt messages from club members. As Berbig sees it, the cards are a connection between people who have never met, but who are joined by their shared humanity and vulnerability.
Berbig has first-hand experience with how a handcrafted message can lift someone's spirits. Her mother was diagnosed with leukemia when Berbig was 8 years old and her sisters were 6 and 4.
"To keep the three of us busy and distracted, I would set up card-making sessions at home," Berbig said. "When we were able to visit mom in the hospital, she would tear up as we showed her all our creations. Then we'd put them up on her walls, so she would remember we loved her even when we were apart."
Her mother died two years after that diagnosis, and the family struggled to find meaning and a way forward.
"My mom was such a happy and positive person, and my dad told us that we needed to use the love and joy she gave to the world to find a way out of this horrible thing that had happened to us," she said. "He told us that happiness is a choice, and we needed to create some good out of this experience."
In her junior year of high school, Berbig did just that. Choosing the Instagram name Letters of Love Global ("I was thinking big even then," she joked), she pulled together friends from all over her high school and asked them to spread the word about this new school club.
"It was important to me that everyone had an opportunity to be involved, no matter what clique they were in or who their friends were," she said. "It was also important that you didn't need to do a 'buy-in' or have to make a donation to participate, the way other charities often require."
More than 100 students showed up for the first Letters of Love meeting. "We were overflowing from the art room, so we had to move to the lunchroom after that," she said.
"I kicked things off and explained what we were doing, and then I covered important points like not saying 'Get well' or 'Feel better soon,' because sometimes that's not possible for the kids we were creating cards for." She encouraged everyone to have fun, and to let that joy be evident in their messages.
The meetings were a good time, right from the start. "We always made waffles, played music and spent some free time being creative and kind, which is a great combination," she said.
In January 2020, Berbig planned a teens-only gala for Letters of Love, which raised $12,000. GoFundMe noticed her work and named her a Hero of the Month, which generated more attention. She held her second gala last August, joking that with all this event planning experience, "I'll be good at planning my wedding someday."
'Something to look forward to'
Isak Hedeen, 20, attended high school with Berbig and had made cards for Letters of Love. In the summer of 2020, he dove into the shallow end of a pool and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him hospitalized.
Instead of crafting cards, he was now receiving them.
"My mom would visit every day and read the cards aloud to me, then hang them on the wall," he said. "It gave me something to look forward to, because those cards were my only interaction with other people."
In all, Hedeenreceived more than 200 cards from Letters of Love, including some from strangers. "Hearing the name of someone I didn't even know, who'd taken the time to make and sign a card for me, that made it personal, and it made a difference," he said .
Hedeen is making strides in his recovery and is now a student at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, living independently in on-campus housing.
While the focus has been on school groups, Berbig also conducts card-making sessions at corporate events and welcomes contributions from individual card-makers.
To get involved with letters of love, visit their Instagram page (@lettersofloveglobal) or e-mail email@example.com. Said Berbig: "It's 100 percent free to join, and we send each new club their own starter kits of paper, markers and stickers."
Even with such rapid growth, Berbig circles back to the importance of taking the time to write an emotionally supportive message for someone going through a hard time.
"You don't need money to change the world — just a piece of paper and a pen can help change someone's perspective," she said. "Your card might be the only joy that a sick kid feels that day, and that's pretty impressive."
Julie Kendrick is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @Julie@KendrickWorks.com