It can be really difficult to deal with mental health issues at any age, but especially as a teenager, when you already feel like your life is upside down, it’s crucial to have a support system that will really listen and understand what you’re going through. You need a community that will help you cope and remain judgment-free. That’s where Project UROK comes in. TheElizabethian was fortunate enough to get an absolutely wonderful exclusive interview with founder and CEO Extraordinaire Jenny Jaffe. She is an incredible human being, and I highly recommend knowing her if you get the chance.
TE: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
JJ: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to New York about six and a half years ago to attend NYU, where I studied TV Writing at Tisch. I’m a comedy writer and the head of a nonprofit called Project UROK, and I collect pandas.
TE: What is Project UROK and what is its mission?
JJ: “Project UROK is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to create a catalogue of accessible, funny, meaningful videos for teens struggling with mental health issues, by adults who have been there before”—or, in non-press release terms, the digital resource I wish I’d had as a teenager. So many well-meaning mental health organizations present their information in a way that teenagers in 2015 simply won’t connect with because it’s not how they’re used to receiving information. Teens in search of reassurance and community turn to YouTube and social media, so that’s where we are going to make our presence known. We’re also young and have mental health struggles of our own. Project UROK isn’t a group of faceless grown-ups telling you how you should deal with your mental illness, it’s a way of demonstrating that when you share your story, you’ll find that you’re absolutely not alone.
TE: That sounds like a really vital support system to have. How did you come up with the idea?
JJ: From a very young age, I’ve struggled with severe anxiety, OCD, and depression, and while I was lucky to have a family that was incredibly supportive, I felt like there was no way I could be public about what I was coping with among my peers. When I was in high school, things were so bad that I all but dropped out of school, but even when I was there, I self-isolated for lack of knowing what else to do. I was sure I was the only person on the planet coping with what I was coping with. I used to cling to interviews with comedians I admired who admitted to dealing with mental illness.
I really hadn’t been too public about my mental health struggles until last year, when I wrote about my experience in exposure therapy for xoJane. I remember being absolutely terrified the day they posted it, but the response was absolutely staggering. All kinds of people came out of the woodwork to tell me that they had dealt with similar things, including one woman I’ve known since middle school, who had also felt alone all that time. I just thought, “Wow, had I just felt like it was safe to say something about this earlier, she and I could have supported each other.” It would have made so much of it so much easier.
TE: So many people have great ideas but never actually bring them to the public eye. Why did you start this organization?
JJ: My goal was to be a comedy writer, and I got really involved in the New York comedy scene, mostly with my sketch group, Hammerkatz. Senior year I was hired as a staff writer at CollegeHumor, where I worked for a little more than a year, and then I wrote for an MTV show called Nikki and Sara Live. When that ended, I was still doing a bit of writing for various comedy and entertainment sites, but it was a lot of content creation type of stuff that didn’t feel super fulfilling to me. I really went through a sort of quarter-life crisis. My manager asked me, “What do you want to put out into the world?”, and I realized, I got into comedy because it had helped me get through so many days I was sure I’d never survive. I want to give kids like me the hope that comedy gave me. In short, I started it because I didn’t see anyone else doing it, and it seemed like something that desperately needed to be done.
TE: What was the process of developing the organization?
JJ: At first, I thought I was just going to create a video series, but the more people I talked to, the more it seemed like the world was really in need of a more formalized conversation about teen mental health. Developing the organization, and sort of shaping what it was going to look like, was a process of asking everyone I knew who even remotely worked in the nonprofit or mental health sector if I could buy them a coffee and pick their brain. It was almost like a workshopping process for a script – there was a lot of throwing different ideas against the wall to see what would stick. I’ve never thought of myself as business-minded at all, and this has been a lot of me learning business organization and leadership skills on the fly.
TE: We aren’t super business-minded either. So tell us: What are the challenges of starting a nonprofit? Can you tell us a little bit about what it means to be a nonprofit and how that benefits your organization?
JJ: A nonprofit is very much like any other company, except that all of the money it makes goes back towards achieving its goals. Basically, the purpose of the organization is not to generate profit. It requires a few extra steps as far as setting up the organizational structure goes (and a lot of paperwork) but, at the end of the day, it is worth it. It is more in line with our values as an organization, and, in addition, it provides certain fundraising and tax benefits that will be very helpful to us, especially as we get started.
TE: What projects are you currently working on? What are your future plans for the organization?
JJ: [Project UROK] is my biggest project right now. At least through the site launch (on March 25th!), this is very much my full-time job. In an ideal world, at some point I will be able to install someone with more experience in the nonprofit world as the head of the organization, which will allow me to retain a level of involvement while continuing to pursue a comedy career.
TE: We’re so excited for the launch! So we know you’re SuperWoman, but you must have some help. Who else is involved in the day-to-day operations of Project UROK? What does the behind-the-scenes look like?
JJ: My right-hand person is our video production coordinator, Sarah Hartshorne, who is the person keeping me sane most days. There’s also our social media manager, Grace Bleiweis, our producer Rachel Smith, our video editors, our video production team, our legal and web development teams, our advisory board… That’s not even mentioning everyone who has made a video or otherwise supported us. I’ve got a spread sheet of everyone who’s helped make Project UROK possible. It’s staggering.
Most days, behind the scenes is honestly pretty boring from an outside perspective. It’s a lot of sending emails and making phone calls. What’s most fun for me is actually being on set, watching people boldly telling their stories on camera. We just got a real-life office, which is exciting!
TE: That’s super exciting and great that you have such an expansive list of people working towards the same great cause. How can people get involved? Will you be offering volunteer and/or internship programs in the near future?
JJ: We absolutely will be! I’d advise anyone interested in getting involved to first follow and interact with us across social media—we’re @projecturok on Twitter and Instagram, Project UROK on Facebook and YouTube, and projecturok.tumblr.com. We’re posting new videos every Tuesday and Thursday. We’ll post job, internship, and volunteer opportunities as they arrive, probably after the official site launch. In the mean time, if you’re interested in learning about specific ways you can get involved, email email@example.com. And we’re always looking for more people who want to make videos! Our next in-Studio day is February 23rd.
TE: Fantastic. We want to wish you the best of luck with Project UROK and are excited to see this become THE resource for teenage mental health awareness. Anything else you want to tell us about Project UROK?
JJ: No matter what you’re going through, you are okay.