The Birth of Smile Cards

I have handed out nearly 200,000 smile cards. These small, business card-sized pieces of paper have magical effects on other people – bringing smiles to even the most sour individuals. So with 200,000 cards, that’s 200,000 smiles I’ve shared with others. Just think of how many people those smiles have impacted! And that’s just one man’s work. What if we all made it our mission to bring smiles to everyone we meet?

The story below is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Finding My Smile” and explains the origins of the Smile Cards which have brought me many new relationships and are the calling card of the Smile Out Loud Foundation.

Smiles are hard to come by in our society. There’s enough hardship and pain to stop a lot of people from smiling. Nine months of being sick sucked away my smile, but I rediscovered it in helping others. Ever since AA I had learned the significance of taking care of other people and putting them first. Working as a counselor meant that I had the opportunity to help people every day of my life. I loved that sort of work.

Once I got healthy again, I applied for a job working at the Nebraska Correctional Treatment Center. When the state hired me, they had me write a relapse prevention program that would help men stay clean. With relapse prevention, the goal is to teach individuals how to stop an undesired behavior. Showing people their own weaknesses or temptations, my program would foster independent lifestyles free of destructive behaviors. A challenging task, I was given enough freedom to really get creative. Or so I thought.

The first problem came in determining what to call our patients. Since they were all in the NCTC instead of prison, there was a certain logic to calling them inmates. But I was adamant to my boss and coworkers that we wouldn’t be able to reframe the men’s thinking if we continued to call them ‘inmates.’ They would just respond to this program as every other intervention they had experienced throughout their lives. Instead, I insisted they be called ‘clients.’ The term referenced their dignity and made the process of rehabilitation seem more like a personal choice. Something as simple as what they were called could be the difference between simply getting through the program and getting clean for life.


Having gone through my own drug and alcohol dependence, and having studied and worked in the field for years, I recognized that one of the first steps to getting through to these guys would be to help them grow up. The first step to that, though, was to show them that they were currently children. One day I brought in two tubs of sidewalk chalk. I had carried it in through the metal detectors and security checks, had walked through the halls with the tubs in plain sight. I brought it all the way through the building and to the community of clients waiting for a session.

The men noticed the tubs and asked me about them. “How many of you guys have kids?” I asked. A few raised their hands. “How many of your kids have sidewalk chalk?” Of the fathers, many kept their hands up. “Oh good. So you know how this works. We’re going to draw on the sidewalk with chalk today.” There were groans around the room from guys who thought it was a ridiculous exercise.

“Hey, look here,” I said. “You guys have been kids all of your lives. When you committed crimes you were being kids, when you had sex you were being kids, when you relapsed you were being kids. If you’re going to act like kids, I’m going to treat you like kids.” I handed out the chalk and explained their assignments. “Here’s the deal: getting to know yourselves as kids, I want you to take this chalk and draw on the sidewalk around you. You need to draw pictures of your relapse signs, those things that warn you that you are about to relapse.”

At first, my clients were not interested…

As they spent more time with their artwork and as they got more accustomed to reflecting on their experiences, they began to realize new things about themselves. They grew into their own experiences and became self aware. “Remember these warning signs, guys,” I’d tell them, “next time you find yourselves wanting to relapse.”

The exercise was a big success. That is, until one of the lieutenants from the correctional facilities saw what we had done. He came roaring into my office carrying the pieces of chalk. Every word he screamed sizzled with anger. I looked at my officemates and smiled, surprised by the LT’s fury. “What’s the matter?” I asked, barely able to smother my laughter.

“Who told you you could do that outside?” he roared.

“No one. It was an exercise for the guys.”

“What did you use?” he shouted, getting angrier by the second.

“Sidewalk chalk,” I replied, not grasping why he was so angry.

The LT didn’t care. He forced me to see the warden. The man didn’t even knock on the warden’s door or mind the fact that the warden was in a phone meeting. He simply marched inside, dragging me along, and began explaining everything. The warden murmured something to the person on the other line, and got off the phone.

“Now what is this all about?” he asked.

The lieutenant continued on and on without stopping about how I had done this and I had done that. He was wagging the large piece of sidewalk chalk in his hand all the while. Neither the warden nor I could completely follow all of the things he said, but the gist of it was, “Wolf screwed up!”

I tried very hard to remain silent, but seeing how worked up the LT was about sidewalk chalk nearly made me fall out of my chair with laughter. I laughed even harder when the warden tried to signal a time out from the LT so he could have me explain the situation. Finally he gave up on silencing the lieutenant and looked directly at me.

“What did you do that got the LT so angry?”

“Do you have kids, sir?”

“You know I do,” the warden replied.

“Do they ever write on the sidewalk with chalk?” I asked. The warden nodded. “What do you do when they’re done?” I asked, not making a big deal of the situation.

“Wash it off,” the warden replied.

“Why am I being screamed at then?” I was shaking my head at the ridiculousness.

The warden turned his attention to the lieutenant. “So what did David do?”

“He took the chalk and drew all over the sidewalks,” the officer said, finally calm enough for listeners to understand.

“Who drew?” the warden asked me.

“The clients. They drew their relapse signs.” I explained the different stages of the person—their adult and child stages. Then I said, “I got our clients into their Child and had them draw their relapse signs.”

After the exercise, I had had the men fill out reviews of the experience, so I handed the stack of reviews to the warden. He began to smile as he read through everything. The guys had been wild with enthusiasm. The warden looked at me.

“This is great David!”

But we’re going to need to do something here to make sure that you two don’t come bursting into my office again. David, I want you to go around with the LT for a month. You’re going to do all the same things he does and see all the things he sees. You’re going to need to learn what it’s like to work on the correctional side of things here.”

He then turned to the LT. “Lieutenant, when David is leading group work, I want you to sit in. You both need to know what each other does.”

I didn’t mind the assignment, but I could tell the LT did. He was not interested in learning to help these guys. Just in controlling them.

The idea for Smile Cards

It began as a personal project: one of the men I treated refused to smile. No joke, no compliment, no success could reach him. I used to go home at the end of the day and just bemoan the situation to Linda. How could I get him to smile? What could I do to reach him?

Finally, I decided to create a small card that I would hand the man to entitle him to a smile. Linda helped me type the cards up, and we printed them out on homemade cards. The next morning, I returned to NCTC ready with a final attempt. Before our group session began, I pulled the man aside.

“I have something for you,” I stated simply. Handing him the simple card that read “This card entitles you to a free smile,”

I held my breath for his reaction. A miracle happened before my eyes: he smiled. From that moment on I understood how significant a smile could be. And I began my mission to spread them around the world.

With all of the success of the NCTC program, I still recognized that there was more to be done. After the state took my program and tried to replicate it elsewhere, I began to turn my attention to helping men stay clean after prison. Successful though we may be within the walls, there were limitations to our work, limitations that dumped the men out of our program the day they were released and set them up to fail every single time. I wanted to help men recover and stay sober. I wanted to respond to that need. So with my smile cards in hand and a plan in mind, I began a new chapter of my life.

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