Unimaginable trauma and cruelty didn't break them. Their letters will tell you why.
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Letters of Peace

When it comes to sending a message to someone you love, nothing lasts like a letter.

Notes that are written by hand, that we can hold in our own, are so powerful. We can feel the weight of the paper, the texture of the ink, and see the emotion carried through the pen from the hand of the person who wrote it. This is especially true with a message of peace.

Earlier this year, the Paper and Packaging — How Life UnfoldsTM campaign reached out to people across America who had endured unimaginable trauma and cruelty. They survived terrorist attacks, school shootings, and the horrors of human trafficking. One was bullied relentlessly for much of her young life. Another lost a family member to suicide. They faced devastating, life-altering challenges and somehow came out with their faith in humanity intact.


Each of these survivors was asked to handwrite a one-page letter to the world, sharing their story — and their message of peace.

Watch the powerful, emotional video here:

Hardly anyone grows up expecting to endure hardship and tragedy. Asia Graves never did.

From ages 16-18, she was sold in cities along the U.S. East Coast, a victim of human trafficking. Though she eventually escaped and worked with the FBI to bring some of her attackers to justice, the pain, anger, and trauma remained. "I always thought that no person on this planet would ever love me and that I was worthless in the eyes of everyone around me," she writes in her letter. "But when I started to love myself, flaws and all, I was able to recognize the love and compassion in others."

For years, Jodee Blanco was continuously bullied and ostracized by her classmates for being different.

Jodee Blanco. All images via Letters of Peace/YouTube.

Through forgiveness and reflection, she's learned to welcome those same people back into her life. "I learned the ability to forgive is the greatest gift you can give yourself and others," she writes. "If there's a painful memory you can't erase, instead of letting it consume you, turn your pain into purpose."

Cliff Molak, whose younger brother David committed suicide to escape cyberbullying, agrees.

"The only way to end suffering in this nation ... is not to highlight differences between groups of people, but to focus on the importance of accountability and character."

Anti-bullying activist Cliff Molak.

Heather Egeland, a survivor of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, experienced grief and depression for years. Remembering that our world is interconnected helped bring her back.

"I believe that if we took the time to notice, we'd see we're infinitely more connected by our similarities than divided by our differences," she writes. "The truth is none of us are alone. All we have to do is take notice."

Patrick Downes was at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when the first bomb exploded. He lost his leg as a result of the explosion, but not his faith in the world.

Boston Marathon bombing survivor Patrick Downes.

"Some might say that we in Boston were victims of violence, but I see us as ambassadors for peace," he writes. "The smallest and largest signs of peace send a message that peaceful and caring societies will always triumph over those who attempt to break us apart."

This year, especially, when so many dark moments seem to drown out the bright, sharing handwritten letters from the heart can make a difference.

If you are inspired by these stories, please share your own. Find a quiet corner, a fresh piece of paper, and a pen, and sit down to craft your own handwritten letter of peace to the world. Send it to one person or the world, sharing on social media with the hashtag #lettersofpeace.

As Patrick Downes powerfully ends his letter: "Hate will always fall victim to love. My town, family, wife and I choose love.”

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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