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Baring Souls On Bare Skin: 'Dear World' Project Visits Montpelier

If you and your co-workers were asked to share a meaningful message with one another and your message was written on your body for all to see, what would it be? What would it tell your coworkers about you? This week, 800 employees at National Life in Montpelier took on these questions as part of a project called, "Dear World." 

Team building exercises are nothing new to the corporate world. They often take the form of games or exercises designed to build trust.

But this one sounds a little odd.

“There were some people, they were like, ‘why is he doing this?'” says National Life Group president and CEO Mehran Assadi. 

He says when he experienced the Dear World project at a company gathering in Hawaii, he thought it would be a perfect fit for the insurance and investment firm’s culture.

“This company has been around for 167 years," Assadi says. "And the people of National Life Group, the spirit of these people is a differentiator in the marketplace for us."

The idea behind Dear World is to give people an opportunity to express something personal in a few words which are then written on the individual's arms, hands or across their forehead.

Because it’s a challenge to write legibly on yourself, coworkers often help each other. Each taking turns writing and being written on. 

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Rony Sleiman lived through a 15-year civil war in Lebanon before coming to Vermont. Now with a wife and family, Sleiman's message is "life is good."

“A lot of this process is going to be helping to each other. There’s a lot of ways to do this,” explained Dear World founder Robert Fogarty as he prepped people for what would transpire.

Seven years ago, Fogarty asked people in New Orleans to write love notes to their city on their bodies and then took their photographs. One man took the opportunity to write something about himself instead – “Cancer Free." Fogarty says, at that moment, he realized the potential of what he was doing.

Since then, he’s traveled the world photographing the messages of everyone from refugees to celebrities. He’s also been hired by businesses like National Life.

Fogarty says something important happens through the simple act of writing someone’s personal message on them and having them do the same for you.   

“We’re not ‘just an analyst’ or ‘just a writer,' we’re so much more," says Fogarty. "I do this around the world now for Fortune 100 and 500 companies. They’re recognizing that people are more productive, they’re happier productive when they’re engaged at work, and when it’s not just ‘I’m really good at this one thing.’”

At National Life some of the messages employees carefully wrote on each other are cryptic: “You forgot the Band-Aid."

Others were expressions of resolve, like “Stronger than you seem."

There were plenty that expressed appreciation: “My wife saved my life.”

"We're not 'just an analyst' or 'just a writer,' we're so much more." — Dear World founder Robert Fogarty

Each person was photographed with their message, and people were encouraged to talk to their co-workers about its meaning.

Judy Emmons had “Ohana” written on her forearm. A word, which in the Hawaiian culture means "family." She says she first heard it in a Disney movie.

Emmons wasn’t sure about how Dear World would work, but she sees the benefits.

“I was a little shocked because it brings people out of their comfort zone," Emmons explains, "and it makes you do things you wouldn’t think of doing on your own. But it brings people closer together in the end."

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Judy Emmons chose a word that signifies 'family' for her Dear World message. Emmons says she's surprised how the project has brought coworkers "out of their comfort zones."

Another National Life employee, Dennis Patrick, had three words in his message: one on each hand and one on his forehead: “Positive," "Mental," and "Attitude.”

Patrick says those three words mean a lot to him.

“There’s a lot of negative people that I’ve grown up with," says Patrick. "I just try to live my life by this mantra, I keep telling myself whenever I feel down or depressed. It lifts me back up."

Even a well-worn phrase can have a very personal story behind it.

Part of Rony Sleiman’s message is “Life is Good,” which he had written on one forearm.

Sleiman is Lebanese. He lived through a 15-year civil war in Lebanon, then arrived in the U.S. to an uncertain future.

"I came here with no plans," Sleiman explains. "I met my wife and I got two kids now. Life has been very good. I feel blessed."

It’s stories like Sleiman’s that Assadi hopes will come to the surface and make for deeper connections among co-workers. 

“Once we learn about each other, we just show up in different ways to support each other and be much more understanding of each other,” he said.

(An earlier version of this story stated that Assadi first experienced Dear World at a company event in Dallas. The event was in Hawaii.)

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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