"To really make a change in the world, sometimes you have to see the absolute worst that we can do," says 29-year-old Alex Sheen in the back office of Because I Said I Would's storefront on Detroit Ave. in Lakewood one May afternoon.
Some 1,100 miles away in Tampa Bay, Fla., Julie Powers Schenecker is days away from being convicted by a jury of murdering her two children and sentenced to two life terms in prison. Her husband, Colonel Parker Schenecker, a 27-year U.S. Army veteran, has seen the absolute worst that we can do."You lost both of your children and your wife," says Sheen. "It would have been easy to lose faith in humanity, just to give up, to sit in a room."
But that's not what the Colonel did, despite the sickening tragedy he endured, the details of which have been splayed out in national media and across south Florida.
In January 2011, Parker Schenecker was stationed in Afghanistan. For those in the military and their loved ones, the sight of a priest and an officer of your same rank on your doorstep is a telltale and undebatable sign of life-changing bad news. When Schenecker saw that duo of doom approach him, he thought perhaps it was his mother. He braced himself. The news was far more horrifying. His wife had shot their son Beau, 13, twice while driving him to soccer practice, then returned home to kill their daughter Calyx, 16, with the same .38 revolver while she sat at her desk doing homework.
Colonel Schenecker gave a brief eulogy shortly thereafter for the children he thought he would never have to bury, let alone under these circumstances. It was succinct and heartfelt and wrought with the emotion of a father robbed of his everything.
"As I mourn the loss of my two children, my dearly beloved children," he said in February 2011, "I am comforted that they have been welcomed on the other side and heaven is rejoicing at their coming."
He then added a very simple promise: He would spend every day of the rest of his life remembering their lives.
It was more than a year later when the Colonel came upon Alex Sheen and Because I Said I Would, which launched in late 2012 and declared itself a "social movement and nonprofit organization dedicated to bettering humanity through the power of a promise." The group sent out 10 small, business-card-sized pieces of cardboard with "because I said I would" in the lower right corner to anyone who asked for them. The recipient would write their promise in the blank space. If they wrote it to someone else, they gave it to them and it would be returned when the promise was fulfilled.
Simple, really: A promise is important. Here, then, is a tactile reminder of that.
In Sheen, Colonel Schenecker would find a kindred spirit, a motivating force, an outlet for good, a check on what he said he would do. And thousands and thousands of others did too, all reaching out to Sheen for the same reason with stories loaded with emotional baggage and inspiration and the heaviest of personal weight.
Not many of those stories have been told publicly but the ones that have resonate deeply. It was Sheen who 22-year-old Matthew Cordle sought out to help him confess on video to killing a man while drunk driving all for the promise of telling others to stop driving under the influence. It was Sheen and his nonprofit to whom Garth Callaghan reached out with a promise — he would write 826 napkin notes for his daughter so she could have one with lunch every single day, even if he died from the cancer with which he was recently diagnosed.
And so it was with Colonel Schenecker.
"This is his commitment," says Sheen of Schenecker's promise. "He started a memorial fund, he started scholarships for kids in the schools where Calyx and Beau attended so that as they grow up, they can have full meaningful lives to help others. He started a leadership and ethics speaker series. And he asked me to the be the inaugural speaker. How do you say no to that?"
Not even two years ago, Alex Sheen was blissfully toiling away at Hyland Software on Cleveland's west side, content with his role as innovation manager in one of the fastest growing, highest ranking places to work in Northeast Ohio. Nineteen months later, he employs six people, has started a nonprofit business in a completely different field, distributed over 1.4 million promise cards (hitting all 50 states and an astonishing 105 countries), given dozens of speeches across the country, touched thousands of lives around the world and is in the midst of planning one major event.
Imagine one of those maps sprawled out on the wall with lines of yarn connecting pin dots. Imagine the center in Lakewood and the push pins and yarn covering the entire map so that not one microscopic spec of terrain was visible. That's what Alex Sheen's little idea has produced, the stories and promises poured out across the globe.
Many of these stories would resonate like those, hit supernova viral status in a matter of days and land Alex Sheen on the morning talk show merry-go-round again and Because I Said I Would across the headlines. Think of a national tragedy and chances are better than not someone involved has been in contact with Sheen. From our darkest depths comes the greatest change.
But Sheen has very good reasons for not telling those stories. Not yet, maybe not ever, and definitely not for the reasons you want them told. He'll simply keep doing what he promised to do in the first place and nothing more for now, because he said he would.***
Alex Sheen wasn't a bad person, just someone who was loose with his word and bad with followups. His father was the polar opposite.
Alex was the kind of guy who was always late. He was the guy who, when his father deposited his college tuition payment in his bank, neglected to drop it off at school long enough that he got charged with a late fee. It was only $25 or so, but that wasn't the point, his father told him. You had the money, you knew when it was due, I gave it to you, and all you had to do was walk down the hall.
And so after his father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011 and when he passed away in September 2012, Sheen pondered what to say in his eulogy. He thought about what his father did with his life, his promises made and the promises kept, the little things that parents tacitly agree to do simply by signing up for the gig and the ways in which his father went above and beyond that duty.
"I sat back and I thought, 'You're not good with promises, Alex,'" he says. "'And the best part of the person you just lost? You don't have that in you.'"
Reading from a few pieces of paper, Sheen delivered his eulogy with a call to arms.
"As you can imagine, like any son, I want to remember my father. Al wasn't anything press worthy. He didn't fight in a winning war, he didn't meet the president," Sheen said between tears. "But what he did do was keep his promises, particularly to me and my brother. Too often we make promises little and big that we don't honor. It's easy to say, 'I'll get to it,' or, 'Tomorrow.' I want to remember my father and I want you to remember the promises you've made. Take a promise you've been putting off — fix the ceiling fan, change the oil, quit smoking, send a letter — and do it. I want my father's memory to help you and others. So I have a favor of all of you to ask: I've created these cards. All it says is... because I said I would."
Sheen put three promise cards in his father's casket, passed out the rest to those at the funeral, set up Facebook and Twitter pages for his idea, and set out to start bettering humanity through the power of promises.
One of his first promises after that was to sleep outside for two weeks to raise awareness for homelessness. This was late fall, early winter 2012, and would include Thanksgiving.
In the middle of the evening, he awoke to sounds. Someone was going through a car. Wait, that was Sheen's car in the driveway. He put on his fogged-up glasses and exited the tent to find someone breaking into his car."He runs at me and tries to punch me in the face — he's got to go right by me, there's no other way out for him. I chase him — I'm delirious," says Sheen. But then I realize what I'm doing and call the cops. I slept with a knife under my pillow the rest of the nights. I was terrified."
Throughout that winter, Sheen began to receive messages far and wide requesting cards and used his personal savings to mail out the batches. Someone wanted to quit smoking. Someone wanted to stop cutting themselves. Someone wanted to spend more time with their children. The first mailing was 10 cards to five people. That became 50, which became 250, which became 500, which became 1,000. He was still working full time at Hyland but thankfully had the help of Hyland co-worker and friend Amanda Messer who volunteered her time packing mailings on her days off and weekends while holding down her job and being a single mom.
In addition to his public-service promises, Sheen had a set of his own. He'd been thinking about New Year's resolutions and the eventual fade of new beginnings that inevitably come after the first utterance of an oath.
"I obsessively think about commitments," says Sheen. "And if you think about resolutions, it's sort of symbolic of how we treat the rest of our commitments. By the time March or April rolls around, ask anyone and it's like a joke, right?"
Sheen habitually ends sentences with, "Right?" cajoling along his listeners to the conclusion, which is part of the reason he's such a dynamic speaker and magnetic personality. He asks you to follow along and makes sure you're with him.
"That's a problem," he says. "So I did 52 New Year's resolutions, one for each week of the year, and I had to do each one by Sunday night of that week. I promised to teach my grandma how to Skype, teach myself how to make a fire, watch Gone With the Wind, donate blood for the first time."
That mega New Year's resolution this year has become a promise to volunteer at 52 different nonprofits. He wanted to get involved in the most direct way possible after months of reaching out to organizations through his various promises.
When Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued from Ariel Castro's house of horrors in May 2013, for example, Sheen promised to walk across Ohio to raise awareness for sexual abuse victims. "I'll give you 10 days of my life for your 10 years in captivity," he said. And so he trekked over 240 miles in little over a week, stopping each night to rest and dunk his aching legs and feet into tubs of ice. When people who had promised to show up to deliver food or otherwise help him didn't show up, Amanda hopped in a van after work in Westlake and drove to meet him. She knew this meant something.
Alex did too and, by this point, promises were his full-time job.
Just a few months before that, in February 2013, Sheen had taken stock of what his promise cards and movement had become. Despite an uncertain financial future, the sheer volume of work he wanted to do with his nonprofit and what it might mean to people came to a head and an undeniable decision when he received a handwritten letter on his desk. It was from a young girl in her teens. "I'm lucky," it read. She'd thought about taking her own life a couple of times, but she'd found Because I Said I Would and she'd been using promise cards with her family.
Sheen walked into his boss's office at Hyland to tell her his decision to quit his job. He handed her the letter, another tactile reminder of things accomplished through his mission and what he felt like he had to do.
His boss took maybe 15 seconds to read the beginning of the letter and then looked at him.
"This letter..." she said, as he recounted in a TEDx talk last year. "I don't know how you got this letter, but it's from my daughter. This letter is from my daughter. This is her handwriting."
It was the sort of coincidence that could only be scripted, but like so many of Because I Said I Would's moments, it was utterly and devastatingly real.***
Sheen spent the summer of 2013 plowing through his new life as essentially a one-man operation and using his savings to support himself and pay for postage. He'd been covered in the local media, especially at the onset of the nonprofit and during his walk for the Seymour Ave. survivors. But a Facebook message on August 9, 2013, would change everything.
Matthew Cordle was a 22-year-old in Columbus with a personal plea for help. He told Sheen in that first correspondence that he had killed a man while driving drunk.
It had happened in the early hours of June 22, 2013. After hours of drinking with friends in Columbus, Cordle was blackout drunk but decided to hop in his white Toyota Tundra anyway and drive home. He ended up going the wrong way on I-670, heading east in the westbound lanes. He drove his truck headlong into a tan Jeep driven by 61-year-old Vincent Canzani, killing him. Cordle would end up in the hospital, distraught and confused, initially screaming, "I didn't kill anyone!" before eventually screaming, "I killed someone!" His blood alcohol level was .191.
The following weeks were spent in recovery as lawyers took over the case and advised Cordle not to say anything to anyone about the incident, even during sessions at an addiction treatment center. They would try to get the blood test thrown out. In the meantime, additional tests were being run to see if drugs were in his system that night and authorities were still waiting on the toxicology report from Canzani to be finished.
Cordle had enough as the wrangling went on. In the midst of a particularly dark moment one evening at a house owned by his family, he came to the stark realization that he would plead guilty. But that wasn't enough. He'd stumbled on Alex Sheen and Because I Said I Would and delved into the organization's litany of promises, including one to send children with cancer to Disneyland. In Sheen, Cordle could see someone who could help him publicly admit to his crimes.
The two talked constantly after that first message. Sheen was feeling out Cordle to see how sincere he was, making sure that if he put his nonprofit's name alongside anything from Cordle, that the Columbus man wouldn't profit off the tragedy. And there were endless other questions to answer: How would this affect Cordle's legal status? What would lawyers say? What did it mean for Because I Said I Would to benefit with visibility off of Cordle's confession?
The resulting video confession, entitled "I Killed a Man," was posted to YouTube on September 3, 2013, despite objections from Cordle's legal team and family. Cordle's face is pixelated and his voice distorted in the beginning before fading away to reveal his real face, real name and real voice. It ends with Cordle holding up a promise card — "I will take full responsibility for my actions," it read — and begging the viewer not to drink and drive.
The video went instantly viral in the hours after it was posted and has been viewed over 2.6 million times.
Cordle was arrested a week later and charged with aggravated vehicular homicide. He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
Because I Said I Would landed on the national stage. Cordle's sisters would start Save Your Victim, an awareness organization dedicated to preventing drunk driving deaths.
"I don't like to think of ourselves as an inspirational thing," says Sheen. "I think that might be a little cheesy. At the end of the day, if our video doesn't call you to action, if it only entertains you, or if it only gets you to click 'like' on Facebook, it's worthless. We need you to make a promise to not drink and drive after watching that video."
As Sheen was dealing with the torrential influx of requests for promise cards and the wave of media interviews, one submission from a man trickled into the Because I Said I Would universe in November that stuck with Sheen.The man's name was Garth Callaghan. He was a father with a 14-year-old daughter named Emma. Every day since she was in the third grade, he'd written her a napkin note in her lunch.
He'd been diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2011, then prostate cancer a year later. In October, 2013, the kidney cancer returned. It was stage 4.
Like Cordle, Callaghan had been following Sheen's work. With the odds stacked against his long-term survival, he made a simple promise on one of Sheen's cards. "I will write 826 napkin notes for Emma!" One for every day to carry her through high school.
When Sheen promoted Garth's story — he became known as Napkin Note Dad — the wrenching tale that so easily tugged on the heartstrings of parents and children went viral as well and Garth and Emma made the media rounds.
Again, Because I Said I Would's message spread far and wide, and Sheen was inundated with requests.
"It's hard to say what's going to catch someone's attention," says Sheen. "Attention isn't really necessarily the right word. Thought provoking is more what we mean. I don't want the importance of a promise to be trendy. I think that's part of the problem — it's too 'right now' and just goes away. When's the last time you printed a photograph? Long time ago, right? Now, how many pictures of you or your loved ones have been taken in that time? A ton, right? Take that paradigm and 20 years ago the opposite was true. We don't have these artifacts anymore and we need them sometimes, especially for the emotional things in our lives. This life stuff doesn't come with a ticket stub to remember it by."
As with Cordle's story, there was an easy takeaway for Sheen to trumpet.
"You feel bad for Garth and Emma, right?" he says. "But more importantly, you say, 'I can do that.' That would take a long time, but any parent can do that. We can't always connect with our kids, maybe, or know what the right thing is to say to them, but this is something you can do. And there are a lot, a lot, of everyday promises that don't catch everyone's attention, and I share those, but they're not going to go viral in this way."***
Of course, there are the everyday promise cards. They decorate the walls of Because I Said I Would's Lakewood office. There are the cute ones — "I will use my indoor voice when I'm indoors" — and the practical ones — "I will not text and drive." They come in every language and range from the simple, life-altering pledges to stop smoking or drinking to fundamental oaths to spend more time with family and friends.
But among those 1.4 million promise cards sent out, there are many more stories like Garth and Matthew and Colonel Schenecker. Sheen is sitting on what would be a newspaper or magazine's dream cache of heart-wrenching personal tales of triumph and resilience. He can rattle a few off the top of his head without pause. For example, the one about a woman kept captive and subjected to sexual abuse for years and the daughter who was born out of that abuse who contacted Sheen about dedicating her life to victims.
Because I Said I Would could pull together any number of stories born out of promise cards and blanket the Internet with viral stories every month, the kind of clickable content that fills out BuzzFeed and morning talk shows. But to do so, to take on more, would run contrary to the organization's core mission, especially when that mission is based on your word.
Sheen dips into his business background at times to describe how he runs the nonprofit. In this case, the decision to go non-viral is about focusing efforts on the base work that happens every day.
"We call it 'throttling' in the business world," says Sheen. "You get to a point where you're going so fast that the success will actually crush you. If I'm not sending out promise cards and people are asking where they are, is that good? If we don't respond well to simple promise card requests and it's crumbling underneath, then it's not the right thing to do, right?"
And the everyday work is the promise cards, sorted in a queue where those in need of professional help are provided resources by Sheen's staff and the rest are sorted into mailings that go out every other Friday with the help of volunteers. The sheer cost and time invested in that alone is startling. Think about 1.4 million cards mailed out in packs of 10. Think about a bulk mailing rate that racks up 50 cents, including packaging, every time someone clicks on their request page. Think about about $1.35 for every international dispatch.
And then think about the temptation to capitalize off the venture in such a way that would easily fund all those mailings and millions more.
Sheen is a fan of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. It may sound cheesy and probably does, but he often thinks about what they might do when he has to make a decision.Like when production companies and networks approach him about doing a reality TV series, which would be incredibly lucrative, especially to a small nonprofit on a bare-bones budget. It could have a social call to action and the scenes seem perfect for the small screen: A person in the midst of a tragedy or crisis makes a promise and Alex visits them and takes them through the journey. It would be can't-miss, must-cry television.
But would Gandhi do that? Definitely not. And would reality TV best serve the mission of better humanity through the power of a promise? Probably not. And so Sheen passes.
What he does do, however, is give speeches. At least two a week every week since January 1 of this year. He dips back into business jargon again to describe how he's used that outlet to bankroll and spread his message.
"What are our direct service programs?" asks Sheen. "Nothing, right? We send out these cards, so we're very different from a traditional nonprofit that way. After the TED talk, I realized how much speakers made, and I'm very transparent about this as any nonprofit should be, and the range is $15,000 to $18,000 for some of the bigger speeches. Now, 100 percent of that money goes back into the nonprofit."
But he doesn't charge everyone. Small schools and causes dear to his heart don't pay anything.
His resulting schedule, when plotted on a calendar, looks something like stacks of multi-colored LEGO pieces all representing obligations. Eating is literally a scheduled activity, as well as time for phone calls to friends and time to drive and deal with traffic so he's not late to any commitments. Then there's the travel, the resolution to volunteer at a new nonprofit every week and time to respond to as many submissions and notes as he can. What's not really there in any column is time for himself.
"I live and die by my schedule," says Sheen. "I really don't have time for a personal life. I live in airports or hotels or the office. I'm dedicated to this."***
The speaking engagements across the country necessitated and provided for a staff that Alex Sheen badly needed. Unsurprisingly, each hire had his or her own promise story and one came directly from a promise Alex had made to Amanda Messer.
As Because I Said I Would took off, Sheen was packing cards at night after working at Hyland and dedicating his weekends to shipping promise cards. Messer, a single mom who had been with Hyland for four years, had followed the movement from the start.
"My dad is an alcoholic and a drug addict," says Messer. "He never showed up or did anything he said he would. So when I saw what Alex was doing, I said, 'Promises are the most important thing in my life. Crazy, right?"
She pestered Sheen with offers of help until she was spending the same nights and weekends, and even some vacation days, counting out cards and packing envelopes. "Can I help? Can I help? Can I help?"
Messer's father and her life were the other end of the spectrum: What happens to those to whom promises are broken?
"I looked at Alex and I knew that we can change that," she says. "And if we can, then people won't have to have the same childhood that I did."
Sheen promised Messer she would be the first full-time employee at Because I Said I Would. He made good on that promise, even before he began paying himself.
Christine Culbertson was brought on first as part-time help to assist Sheen at the office, help wrangle volunteers — basically anything that Sheen couldn't do himself. Messer is Sheen's right-hand gal, whether it's building the website or coordinating volunteer opportunities.
And there's Bradley Burke, another Hyland co-worker, who filmed and edited the Matthew Cordle video while still employed there."What I was doing wasn't very fulfilling," he says. "After working on that video, I realized the impact and how we had the ability to change someone's life. This is so much more meaningful."
He joined on full-time two months ago right around when Sheen hired Ronald Woods part-time. Woods lives at 2100 Lakeside, the city's largest homeless shelter.
Sheen's travel schedule would currently be unmanageable without Rick Doll, the organization's event manager, who's been on staff for six months. He knew nothing about Sheen or Because I Said I Would before clicking on a Craigslist job posting. He watched the introductory video and felt compelled.
"It's heavy, right?" says Doll. "It spoke to me. And, this is my personal story: My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, right? And I told her that part of the reason I came down here to talk to Alex was her. Two days after he hired me, without telling me, she posted a picture to the site. She was going through chemotherapy at the time and had lost her hair. Her big promise was that she would go out in public for the first time without her wig. Alex didn't know it was my sister. I didn't know it was there. It's still one of the posts with the most responses on our site."
Everyone has a promise story.
"You know, I'm 40 now," Doll says. "And everyone else around here is pretty young. You feel like in your 20s, you can do anything. And then you get to your 30s, and you start getting a little more complacent. And by the time you're 40, you maybe feel like this is your little circle of life and you're just going to live there. Being around Alex and hearing his grand visions, it's infectious, it's invigorating."***
Last week, Because I Said I Would unveiled official plans for an inaugural event to be held in Columbus on September 6, 2014. It will bring together supporters, speakers, and some of the faces you might know, including Garth Callaghan and Colonel Schenecker. They've also launched an indiegogo campaign to raise funds.
"We're stable now," says Sheen. "But this will deplete our resources."That's not his main concern, however. His main concern is putting on an event that touches lives and educates. Plans currently include a video booth where supporters can tell their own stories, nonprofit booths and representatives so that attendees can be matched up with immediate outlets for their volunteer efforts to make a difference, a look back at the timeline from a simple eulogy to 1.4 million promise cards, and more. (Tickets are available at becauseisaidiwould.com/one.)
When Sheen talks about throttling, this is what he means. A little more than three months is all that's left to put together an event that will hopefully draw close to 2,000 people.
"I'm incredibly fortunate," says Sheen. "I've been given what's by definition a gift — to be able to help other people. I cry all the time over their stories. It's their own strength though, they're just looking for some rope, and it just so happened in all the books and stuff, they came across Because I Said I Would and it was the right way for them to help themselves. That's a gift and an honor and a privilege."