Last Friday, I hopped on a routine reporting call with Duncan Seay and Jeff Caden, the founders of Evergram--a messaging platform founded in 2011 that allows a group of users to send video, audio, or written messages to one recipient. Once messages are compiled, the site creates an online album exclusively available to its recipient.
The platform is geared towards the celebration or the memorial of life events (such as weddings, anniversaries, or funerals) for family and friends who can't physically be there. "For us, it's about life," Caden told me Friday morning. "Our hope is that future messaging encourages more meaningful messages."
While we spoke--unbeknownst to the three of us on the phone--a tragedy was ravaging the quiet, middle-class town of Newtown, Connecticut.
The call ended, and, like most Americans who were near a TV, I quickly lost focus on pretty much all else aside from the grim details emerging from Newtown's Sandy Hook elementary school. I don't think I'd be alone in saying that a feeling of complete helplessness washed over me that day.
Three-thousand miles away, on a Los Angeles freeway, Duncan Seay was in his car on a conference call with Evergram employees, who filled him in on the news from Sandy Hook. He later explained that he said, "We've got to stop everything and figure out a way if Evergram can help."
The team acted quickly. Since Friday, two Evergram platforms have been created--one by the Evergram team, and one by the family members who lost a child. The first Evergram, Our Broken Hearts, will be presented to the families of Sandy Hook victims on December 31. Seay says he hopes it will act as a "mechanism for these families to reflect on the outpouring of love" from around the world.
More than 3,500 messages have been sent in to Our Broken Hearts from people around the globe offering words of hope, love, and encouragement.
More than 3,500 messages have been sent in to Our Broken Hearts from people around the globe offering words of hope, love, and encouragement. The messages will sit on Evergram's server until December 31, when the founders will share the messages with families affected. Seay says the team is currently working with several local Newtown organizations to identify the most appropriate way to disseminate the album.
The average video length on Our Broken Hearts is about 55 seconds, Seay says, while the average audio length is 35 seconds, and the average note is 580 characters--about 120 words. In the last 24 hours alone, the site has had about 35,000 unique visitors. It's not just people in the United States, either. Visitors from Nigeria, the Netherlands, Oman, and Romania came to the site Tuesday morning.
"It's a reflection on the outpouring of love for these families," Seay says. "In any type of event, people are often looking for ways to express their words and to gain a sense of relief and a way to be heard. It's not only the families that have been affected. What happens subconsciously is that people start to feel that hurt, that loss, that pain. They feel raw, and they look for ways to help. It turns to: what can I do for them? But while they're doing this for the families, they also feel a relief themselves."
Beyond emotional support, Seay made it clear to his team that they must offer way for users to donate money to the families. Although the site has never supported donations, Seay worked through the night with the company's CTO to integrate a donation platform. By Sunday morning, Evergram partnered with The Sandy Hook School Support Fund and integrated a system to deliver funds to affected families.
So far, 25% of the 3,500 messages sent via Evergram contain not only condolenses, but also a financial donation.
Seay has no interest in turning this tragedy into a vehicle for media attention for Evergram--and I believe him. To promote Our Broken Hearts, Seay created an iCNN report, but specifically did not even include "Evergram" in the message. ("In light of this terrible tragedy, we can all make a difference if share the link below with our friends," he wrote.)
Few people outside Connecticut have perhaps worked as closely with the Newtown community in as have Seay and his co-founder Caden. Not suprisingly, the experience has had a profound emotional effect Seay, who himself has three children under the age of 13.
"You feel really heavy," he says. "You realize that when you get pulled into the story full-time, it's something you need help with. It's become a part of us."
Here's what an Evergram might look like for, say, a wedding--with various family and friends contributing thoughts over video or in letters.
On Sunday, Seay discovered that the family of Emilie Parker, one of the first-grade victims, had posted a link to the Our Broken Hearts Evergram on the official RIP Emilie Parker Facebook page. The families of three other victims also posted the link on their pages, too.
"I looked at everything, at all the comments," Seay says. "I am sitting there at my computer with tears running down my eyes because you feel that moment. You feel that moment of how sad it is, but you also feel that moment of how this family values this Evergram, and that they want to be collecting messages for their daughter. That was the moment that really did it for me. You realize you're helping--as much as you're hurting inside."