July 22, 2021
Amber Penny Massey experienced her first case of severe anxiety at age 22. Upon getting her master’s degree in emotional behavior disorders from Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, she worked as a special-education teacher in the Muscogee County School District. The job ended up kickstarting a series of harrowing experiences that would change her forever.
On her first day, Massey found the body of a man who had been stabbed to death lying underneath her portable classroom. If that wasn’t enough, she also had to remain with the body until police arrived to shield her students from the trauma. Her classroom a crime scene, Massey spent the first several weeks that year teaching in the cafeteria and other rooms in the school.
But wait, there’s more. The following month, a gang shooting erupted after a PTA meeting, further stoking the fires of her anxiety. Several years later, while she was eight months pregnant, bank robbers took refuge on the school’s roof as Massey and her fellow teachers barricaded themselves in their rooms.
“My life has never had a dull moment, and it has always included loving and protecting people,” Massey says. “I believe that mental health is so important. It’s overlooked and quickly dismissed.”
Leaving the academic world behind, Massey worked in pharmaceutical sales with Johnson & Johnson, where her newfound passion led to immediate success. But a toxic and abusive relationship ended up rendering her nearly helpless. After several months, she was diagnosed with severe situational and social anxiety. While her deep, depressive state eventually got better, the journey, she says, was a slow, dark ride.
“If you’ve never personally experienced depression and anxiety, you can’t just snap out of it,” she says. “When you struggle with anxiety, you feel overwhelmed and hopeless — all at the same time, which is horrifying.”
Tees Help Make a Statement
In 2015, at age 40 and needing to find a way to move forward, Massey started Tshirts For Hope, a screen-printing company geared toward helping people and the environment. The goal is to work with companies that are transparent about their products and strive to get certifications that matter.
For example, Tshirts For Hope prefers to print on apparel that is made in the United States with ethically produced, fair-trade cotton or recycled elements in warehouses that use less water, chemicals and power than other manufacturers. Allmade, BELLA + CANVAS and Alternative are a few of its favorite partners. The shop’s passion and future focus is water-based printing, with support and training from suppliers like MagnaColours and Ryonet.
“I began in the industry as a hobby to help me battle my anxiety and depression,” Massey says. “I saw T-shirts as a way to make a statement — a way to take a stand without having to say a word. It grew from there. I don’t pull a paycheck from the shop, but [I] invest my money in helping other people and pay it forward. The print shop allows me to meet my neighbors locally and support them globally.”.
Embracing Asian Heritage
The Tshirts For Hope website includes a reference that sheds light on the place from which Massey operates, describing the company as “a little bit Japanese and embracing our Asian heritage, which makes us a little unique.” At a time when the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is experiencing hateful and unwarranted attacks on its people and culture, Massey takes a stand on the issue.
“Social harmony and hard work are strong values in the Asian culture,” Massey says. “What is happening to our community is devastating and very unfortunate. Our family has printed shirts to wear and share that say things like, ‘A little bit Asian,’ ‘I am the Asian Community’ and ‘We are in this together.’ I find empowerment and joy in printing shirts to support others, coming together and, of course, helping other businesses survive.”
Massey hopes the simple-yet-powerful designs will let the AAPI community know they’re not alone. “We pray over every shirt we print when it goes on the printing press and when it is boxed,” she says. “Wearing a statement shirt, especially for the AAPI community around town or on social media, is like leaving the front-porch light on for someone. It reminds them that they are always welcome and have a safe place to come.”
A Mental-Health Warrior
It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic forced Massey to dig a little deeper to fight her constant battles with anxiety. Massey found help in some unexpected places. For example, Tshirts For Hope worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to print shirts for its virtual marathon. In addition, her college diversity-and-inclusion families have been active during the pandemic by planning shirts and artwork to support students.
Massey met Carolina Productions’ David and Julie Svenson when she volunteered to be an extra in a Kendrick Bros. movie that was filmed in her hometown. The Svensons ended up using Tshirts For Hope’s pre-COVID inventory to complete their orders. David Svenson also insisted that Massey include her company’s website as part of Carolina Productions’ custom tag.
“There are a lot of really good and kind people in the world, so you have to keep your eyes and hearts open,” Massey says. “Being a mental-health warrior is so important.”
Moving ahead in a post-pandemic landscape, there are lessons every company will embrace. For a company that thrives, on face-to-face interactions, Tshirts For Hope plans to further that philosophy. “We haven’t done any e-commerce business by choice,” Massey says. “In-person sales is where we thrive. We love relationships and e-commerce just isn’t the same experience.”
The company’s future will be filled with what Massey believes in the most — spreading a gospel of positivity, along with a plan to print for larger groups that do local and global ministry work. While she’s not sure how that’ll look, she’s positive that she can achieve her goals.
“I remind myself that a local print has a global impact,” she says. “We want to be a light in the darkness. I want to be totally transparent when I say, ‘It’s OK to not be OK,’ no matter what society tries to make us believe. ‘It’s fine, everything’s fine, I’m fine’ is a slogan that’s all over apparel on social media lately, and it makes my heart break a little each time I see it.”
With a passion squarely rooted in finding the good in any type of evil, Massey is committed to chipping away at the negative parts of the world that seem to find their way to each of us — one shirt at a time.
Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at email@example.com.
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