Young Changemaker Avery Schwartz is helping people battling isolation or other mental health issues feel less alone with his “Hug Buddy” postcard program
By Gabriella Burman
Featured photo by Darrel Ellis
Avery Schwartz and his “Nana” may not be connected by blood, but he loves her like family. So when the 10-year old Commerce resident learned that Margaret Gavin, his caregiver since birth, was retiring in early 2020, he cut out a square of paper, attached two rectangular arms, and drew a face. “If you miss me,” Avery told her, “you can look at this card. Here’s a hug.” “I just melted,” says Gavin, 75, and now a resident of Traverse City. “And since it was Covid, and so many isolated people were in need of a hug, I suggested he make more.”
Avery’s parents, Glen and Dr. Melanie Schwartz, founders of Viewpoint Psychology & Wellness in Commerce and West Bloomfield, knew their son, a rising fifth grader at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, was onto something. “Avery has always been the kid who wants to help others who may be feeling sad, anxious, or shy,” Melanie Schwartz says. “He takes them under his wing. He has always had a lot of empathy for others.”
The couple, along with Viewpoint psychologist Nikki O’Donnell, had just launched Viewspire, an empowerment and advocacy brand that aims to take the stigma out of mental health, and were looking for a symbol to represent the brand in a whimsical way. The “Hug Buddy,” as Avery had named his gift to his Nana, was “the perfect mascot,” Glen Schwartz says. “It encapsulated the brand. Connection is a pillar of mental health, and the Hug Buddy embodies a deep sense of connection.”The Hug Buddy has since become the centerpiece of Viewspire’s postcard program.
For every purchase of Viewspire merchandise, such as the popular “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” T-shirt, or the “Self Care is So Gangster” hoodie sweatshirt, the buyer receives a postcard bearing the Hug Buddy image and allocates 10 postcards for Viewspire to donate to an organization. So far, Viewspire has donated 16,000 cards in 12 states to hospitals, schools, Girl Scout troops, and more.
“It feels really good that the movement is continuing through the country and may be impacting thousands of people,” Avery says.The response from people who’ve received the cards has been overwhelmingly positive, Glen says. Someone who lost a loved one to suicide told him the card may help individuals with suicidal feelings. Almost across the board, Glen says, “those who have received cards have been thankful and appreciative regardless of circumstance.”
To normalize talking about mental health, Viewspire plans to break a Guinness World record on October 9, when it lines 26,000 postcards along a property in Commerce as part of Viewfest, a psychologist-curated community event that includes activities for children, teens, and young adults, plus live music, food trucks, and vendors. (Currently, the longest line of postcards is approximately 20,000 cards that were lined up in Mumbai in 2019.)
Avery, his brother Ari, and Nikki’s son Zane will color many of the cards in advance, and all cards will be donated to the military, Oakland County schools, and area hospitals — many of them delivered by Avery himself. While on the one hand Avery says he is “surprised that so many people are interested in spreading the message, because when we started I did not expect it to be so large,” now he hopes “we can help thousands and then one day millions” of people.
Reducing the stigma around mental health is urgent. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) found that between April and October of 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in mental health emergency department visits for kids ages 5 to 11 versus the same period in 2019, according to the New York Times. Glen Schwartz says there’s been “a significant increase” in the number of adolescents seen at Viewpoint in the past year.
O’Donnell, who specializes in treating teens, says the youth-oriented words and symbols that adorn Viewspire merchandise help young people internalize “that it’s OK to not feel OK.” Avery says it makes him feel good to know his creation has helped thou-sands of people already, with the potential to help thousands more. “It makes me happy to share mental health messages with others because I know it helps them.”As the company grows, so do Avery’s plans, including producing mental-health-themed videos on YouTube. “I want to see how the Hug Buddy can affect the future,” he says. “I am excited about it.”
ViewFest is on Saturday, October 9, 2021. For more information, head to their website: www.shopviewspire.com/viewfest2021/