Joy Team adds messages of inclusion to inspirational billboards

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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Michele Larsen feels there has been a lot of negativity in the country these last few months, and, at times, it makes her dread looking at her phone or the news.

So when it was time to start planning her third Smile Across America campaign, in which the nonprofit she founded puts up billboards with inspirational sayings across the country, she decided to add something to the messages of love and kindness.

“This year, we also wanted to focus on acceptance,” said Larsen, 48, founder of The Joy Team. “The larger intention is to remind people we’re all in this together.”

The third Smile Across America campaign will see 131 billboards and bus shelter ads go up in 35 cities. The billboards and ads will feature one of eight phrases:

• Be excellent to each other.

• Be you. The world needs more of your kind of awesome.

• Love is your superhero. Give it to everyone.

• Love one another.

• We all belong.

• You are loved. Pass it on.

• You make a difference. We’re so glad you’re here.

• You matter.

Larsen decided to add in messages about inclusion in late January, when there was a lot of talk about deportations, along with an increased sense of fear for many large groups of Americans.

“It was a dozen things,” she said. “It was the sheer pouring down of stuff.”

She said she thinks messages of love and acceptance are more important now than ever, especially given the recent rash of swastikas popping up around the country, vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats to Jewish community centers.

“People who are bullies feel empowered right now,” she said.

While the messages feel topical, Larsen said they are still timeless, which has helped her in past Smile Across America campaigns.

Most of the billboard space is donated to The Joy Team. That’s because, Larsen said, the billboards go up in spaces where the owner doesn’t have any retail business during that time. Some Joy Team billboards have stayed up for three, four or even seven months, Larsen said, even though the campaign only calls for them to be up one month.

This year, the Smile Across America campaign will cost The Joy Team between $6,000 and $7,000, which will be used for physical materials used to put up the billboards and shelter ads, Larsen said. That money came from the organization’s general fund, made up of donations from throughout the year. The campaign also gets some companies and people who sponsor a few billboards.

Billboards and ads for this year’s Smile Across America campaign started going up this week, in hopes that all of them will be up by Monday, which is International Day of Happiness.

Larsen started The Joy Team in 2010 and soon after started putting up billboards, all designed to cheer people up during their day.

“I love the thought of making people smile all over the country,” Larsen said.

During previous campaigns, Larsen said, she received some social media feedback from the billboards, but that’s only a fraction of the people who saw them. She estimates that the 131 billboards and shelter ads this year will be seen 31 million times.

At the Portland Women’s Expo on Saturday, Larsen had a bunch of people come up to The Joy Team booth to tell her how much they loved walking or driving by her billboards every day. They weren’t people she knew or met before, or people who have ever sent her a message on Facebook or Twitter. Larsen said interactions like that let her know the billboards are doing exactly what she wants, and why she needs to keep putting them up, especially in today’s world.

“Every day there is something else that is intolerant or downright mean,” she said. “The only way to combat that is a lot more good.”