Grace Berbig shepherds a global club, spreading love and support through letters.
When Grace Berbig thinks of her mother, Amanda Berbig, she feels the sensation of warmth and sunshine. She sees a young woman donning poofy dresses with flowers in her hair and a smile that radiated from the inside out. She recalls her laughter as they climbed apple trees in the backyard of their Maple Grove home. And she remembers the love notes that graced their lunch boxes each day.
“She really was the best mom,” Berbig says.
So, in 2013 when her mother passed away from leukemia at just 31 years old, Berbig’s world came crashing down. “It broke my heart,” she says. “The most severe pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Berbig and her sisters, Bella and Sophie, credit their dad as their “catalyst for coping” following their mother’s death. “He told us losing our mom could ruin our lives” she says. “Our job was to let our mother’s joy live through us.”
Berbig became determined to honor her mother’s life. “I didn’t want her to be forgotten.”
Today, Berbig is the founder and president of Letters of Love, a nonprofit organization that distributes handmade letters, cards and pictures to children in hospitals around the world. In the five years since its inception, Letters of Love has tallied more than 180 clubs in 31 states and 18 countries. Thus far, its members have created 200,000 cards and counting.
Berbig was just a fifth grader when she lost her mother. And though no one would have blamed her for remaining in her sorrow, Berbig chose otherwise.
“I believe happiness is a choice we have to make every day,” Berbig says.
Not only did Berbig choose to be happy, she chose to be helpful. “I wanted to help people in similar situations [to my mother’s],” she says. “I felt it was my responsibility.”
In junior high, at age 16, Berbig got involved in raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, but that felt like it wasn’t enough. She kept looking for opportunities to be helpful, but it wasn’t until the family moved from Maple Grove to Orono, and Berbig started at Orono High School, that she had her light bulb moment. “I remembered the cards,” she says.
When her mother was in the hospital, the Berbig sisters kept themselves busy drawing cards and pictures for her after school. “She would go through every one,” Berbig says. “In every hospital room, she would plaster all of these drawings all over her room.”
Berbig knew how much those drawings had meant to her mom, and she wanted to share that feeling with others in the hospital. So, Berbig took to her Instagram to invite her friends to join her in the art room to make cards after school one day.
“I bought something like 15 donuts,” she says. “But we had 100 kids pile into the art room. It was completely packed. We made so many cards that day.”
School staff recognized that the idea was a hit and encouraged Berbig to continue. “They said, ‘Grace, you have to keep this going,’” she says. By the end of the year, Letters of Love was the biggest club at Orono High School.
Berbig started fielding calls from students at other schools interested in starting their own Letters of Love clubs and she soon realized that the club could be bigger than her and bigger than Orono High School. She decided to make it a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2019. “It was such a huge accomplishment,” she says.
High School Clubs
These days, Berbig says they are constantly adding new clubs to the organization. Several high schools in the Twin Cities area have started their own clubs, including Plymouth, Maple Grove, Minnetonka and Edina.
Providence Academy launched its Letters of Love club in 2020. “Letters of Love is really aimed at spreading positivity and encouragement to those who need it,” says Anika Austvold, president of the club. “The organization as a whole really focuses on kids in hospitals to lift their spirits, but at Providence, we also incorporate people in our community who need it.”
The club has a little over 150 members and is the largest club at Providence Academy. “I’ve definitely met a lot of new people and interacted with people that I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been in Letters of Love,” Anika says. “It really pushed me to start talking to freshmen and sophomores as a senior, and I also just think it’s a great opportunity to interact.”
Five years after it was founded, the original Letters of Love club at Orono High School is still going strong with anywhere from 75–100 students in all grades attending monthly meetings. “Making cards with encouraging words for children, who are struggling with illness, is really a simple idea, but the impact benefits everyone involved,” says Kristin Frey, who served as the school’s club advisor for Letters of Love last year.
Siena Tompkins was once the recipient of Letters of Love, and she never forgot how that mail made her feel. “Receiving a card from Letters of Love gave me a connection to the outside world when I was confined to the four walls of my hospital room,” Tompkins says. “It really struck me, in that moment, that somewhere out there a stranger had decided to put [colored] pencil to paper with the sole intention of bringing a smile to someone else’s face even though they wouldn’t be there to see it. To me, it meant that I was seen by a community outside of my own, who didn’t even need to meet me to support me.”
Tompkins was so touched by the experience that she ended up becoming a volunteer with Letters of Love. “Volunteering with Letters of Love makes you part of something so much bigger than any one individual, and that higher sense of purpose is an inspiring feeling,” she says.
Tompkins also jumped at the chance to work alongside Berbig. “Grace’s confidence and enthusiasm when receiving me into the [Letters of Love] family was what I needed to remind myself that to the right people, you will always be whole, always be good enough.”
“She is the human embodiment of a ray of sunshine,” Tompkins says. “There is no one better suited for this mission than her.”
Berbig still vets every card before sending them on to the partner hospitals. She loves to see the variety of art, from little kid scribbles and “I love yous” to the sweet side of college football players. There are connect-the-dots cards, jokes and even homemade word puzzles. “It’s so beautiful to see the art of the human letter,” Berbig says.
“As a math teacher, it always impresses me how creative and artistic students are,” Frey says. “That is something I don’t always see on homework!”
Frey knows the kids are making a difference with their creations. She recalled a story of talking about the club with one of her neighbors, who is a nurse at a local hospital. “She has seen our cards in the rooms of children at the hospital and shared the impact that they make,” Frey says. “Children were excited to read them and see them on their walls.”
Tompkins still remembers how beautiful the cards were that she received. “Every single one felt genuine,” she says. “I could tell that the people who made those cards cared for and were excited about what they were doing. The simplicity of writing a card is what I find so beautiful about the mission of Letters of Love.”
Although Letters of Love has already exceeded Berbig’s wildest expectations, she continues to set new goals for the organization, including a club in every state, the first letter from space (“We call NASA every week,” she says.) and more corporate sponsors to help offset their costs. Berbig remains determined to keep the clubs free for participants, including materials but says that comes at a cost of roughly $200 a month per club.
“I’d love to partner with Hallmark on Letters of Love greeting cards,” Berbig says. “And Crayola on supplies.”
Berbig would also love to make Letters of Love her full-time job. “I feel so lucky to have found my passion so early in life.” She notes that working with Letters of Love makes her feel closer to her late mom. “I think she would be really happy about it,” she says, adding, “The whole organization is built on her happiness, her love.”