CAROLINE MOWER AND SOPHIE HUDDLESTUN have been friends for their entire lives. Their mothers met when their older siblings were in preschool and their families have been close ever since.
Now the Lake Forest High School juniors are on a mission.
During the pandemic, they established OFFBeat, an online apparel store designed to bring awareness to a variety of mental health concerns and raise funds to benefit both local organizations and individuals who may be struggling. As Mower and Huddlestun explain on their co-created website, “OFFBeat Apparel is an apparel store created to bring awareness to the different, unique ways everyone copes with their lives: bullying, mental illness, grief, coming out stories, and everything in between. We tell these stories by collaborating with artists on expressive designs. Then we execute their design onto clothes. Plus, profits to go support mental health charities.”
Sophie describes, “After feeling pretty down and despondent during the pandemic, one day Caroline texted me and said, ‘I’ve been playing around with some online designs and different logos and drawings of ways to get out my emotions. And I think it would be really cool if we could put them on t-shirts.’ Then she said, ‘I want to start a business. Will you help me?’”
“We were just trying to create a happy place,” Mower says. “And a kind world. The darkness of 2020 was a weird year, and especially in the summer, it was really hard. And I think it was really hard on adolescents. Everyone kind of grew apart from each other with the pandemic.”
“Our goal,” she continues, “is to build a community here where people are comfortable talking about their problems and receiving support.”
What is incredibly inspiring is that the young women took their feelings of despondency and turned them into something positive, not only for themselves but for their peers as well.
By establishing OFFBeat, they hope to bring awareness to the very real struggles so many teenagers face. “We wanted to spread more optimism and positivity, especially around the issues regarding mental illness that are often not talked about. We wanted to bring light to that and do whatever we could to make it talked about, and make people feel comfortable and supported in the best way that we could,” Huddlestun says.
“Sophie and I both struggled a lot with mental illness before the pandemic, but the pandemic really magnified everything,” Mower says.
Once they started their business last summer, they spent 12 hours a day working on it. Sometimes it became a family affair, with their parents and siblings pitching in.
“It’s been really rewarding, too, though neither of us make money from it,” Huddlestun shares. “It is rewarding knowing that we are doing everything we can to try to bring light to something that’s not talked about and give people a way to express themselves and feel like they’re not alone.”
Perhaps what stands out most is that their business model provides an opportunity for others to be able to express themselves and tell their stories. And OFFBeat sells their designs, with proceeds going back to the designers.
Additionally, they have partnered with CROYA (Committee Representing Our Young Adults), the Lake Forest chapter of a national model of community partnership celebrated for effectively addressing and meeting the social and emotional needs of today’s young adults.
“We made a design with their message and partnered with them,”
Huddlestun says. “They wanted to have a shirt that says ‘It’ll all work out,’ which is their mission statement.” After creating and selling the t-shirts, Huddlestun and Mower went back to CROYA and asked where they would like to have the profits donated. CROYA selected Erica’s Lighthouse, a notfor- profit dedicated to educating and raising awareness about adolescent depression, encouraging good mental health, and breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Mower says the most rewarding part of the entire experience has been working with people on their own designs. “Once you give somebody a platform to express themselves and then you give them the money to do what they want to do, it’s really a great feeling. For example, we worked with a student who goes to our school who is transgender, and they are working on paying for their gender reassignment surgery. So we did a design with them and raised the money for their surgery. That was a very rewarding experience, seeing how grateful people are and being able to genuinely help them.”
As juniors in high school, Mower and Huddlestun will be heading off to college in the not-too-distant future. But that will not mean the end of OFFBeat. “We never want to give this up because we believe it is really important and necessary today,” Mower says.
For more information on OFFBeat Apparel, visit offbeatapparel.shop.