Paper Clouds Apparel: Guitars for Good
When you talk to someone who is really passionate about something, it’s hard not to take on that energy and get fired up right along with them. That’s exactly how I felt when I was talking with Robert Thornton who created Paper Clouds Apparel and Cloud Covered Streets, two organizations which help individuals with special needs and the homeless community. I’ve been following Thornton and his organizations on social media for about the last year, being drawn in by the amazing things that they do, but I finally got the opportunity to meet him at Medicine Stone this year and set up an interview to talk about his new campaign and how he got started with it all in the first place.
Thornton grew up playing baseball with the plan of playing professionally for the major leagues as his only goal in life. He played for many years before injuries made him have to give up the sport that he loved and the dream that he had. This left the then 27 year old in a downward tailspin which took many years to break out of.
“Without baseball I was just very angry at the world, and really lost, just wandering around. To be honest I truly didn’t care about a single thing in whole entire world at that point and I went on literally about a 4 year bender,” explained Thornton. “I took a bartender job and would only work a couple shifts a week and then spend the rest of my time literally just drinking until I was completely numb and couldn’t feel anything. I was just trying to drink until I blacked out because then I wouldn’t have the ability to think about being a failure and think about all those things that would just depress me. So I was like alright, I’m just going to get drunk until I can’t feel anymore and I literally did that for a good 4 years.”
Thornton credits a chance meeting with a co-worker at his bartending job with changing the direction of his life. Although not very religious up until that point in life, Thornton admits that at the time he thought if there was a God, he didn’t like him very much because God would have known how much he wanted to play baseball and wouldn’t have taken it from him. So when he overheard his co-worker Denise talking about being a believer, he started actually going out of his way to mock and torment her about her faith.
“I would see her and say “Hey how’s your imaginary friend Jesus doing today?”. I was terrible, but she never lashed out or did anything. She would come out with us heathens and troublemakers and just sit there and she’d have like one beer and then go home,” said Thornton. “I remember one night, and I was already probably 15-16 gin and tonics in, and she showed up and I said ‘hey I’m going to go to church with you tomorrow morning’. She was like ‘what?’ and I was like ‘yeah just put the address here in my phone and what time’, and she said 9 a.m. and she put the address in my phone and I know never in a million years did she think I would actually show up.”
But Thornton did show up the next morning, even early much to Denise's surprise. Sitting there at church Thornton could smell the gin coming out of his pores and knew he was really in no shape to be anywhere, much less church. However he was pleasantly surprised when the pastor started talking about the bible and religion in a way he had never heard it approached before, and it piqued his interest and caught his attention.
“I just remember that day one of the things they talked about was God having a path for you and having a decision for you. We’re not always smart enough to understand it and we just have to sit back and try to understand and that just resonated with me at that point and so it definitely was a moment that I can look back on and it completely saved my life,” said Thornton. “It allowed me to accept the fact that God has a plan for me that is bigger than baseball. Had I made it to the majors and made millions of dollars would I be trying to help people the way that I do now? To be honest probably not. I would probably just be a huge egomaniac who was just one of those typical spoiled athletes. I would have been one of those, but luckily again He has a different plan for me.”
It was also around this same time in 2008 that Thornton traveled from his home in Phoenix, Arizona to Northern California to visit his parents. When he got there, he noticed a child’s drawing on the fridge which fascinated him, even more so because he wasn’t sure where it had come from, since there were no little grandchildren running around for his parent's just yet.
“I went to my mom and asked her and she had taken a job as a bus driver for children with special needs. There was a little girl on her route that as soon as my mom would strap her in her seat and get her buckled it, she would just draw the whole entire time and most times would give those drawings to my mom. That’s what it was and the whole entire time I was mesmerized by this drawing and the next morning I remember waking up and I had put it on the bed stand next to the bed and I looked at it again,” explained Thornton.
“Now there’s been two times in my life that I’ve felt, like you see a cartoon and you see the light bulb go off in the character’s head, and I’ve had two of those times in my life and this was the first one. I saw the drawing and thought, man these would look really cool on a t-shirt and it was just ‘ding’, and I was like, Oh my goodness I think I know what I want to do with my life. I remember running downstairs and telling my mom. My mom is the greatest person that’s ever walked on the face of the earth and she was like, yeah, do it. I feel very, very fortunate to have a mom who has always encouraged any crazy hair brained idea or dream that I’ve had. She’s like 'alright if you really feel passionate about this thing, then go and do it'. So I was like alright, this is what I want to do.”
That’s when the idea for Paper Clouds Apparel was born, but it would still be a few years before it would be realized. Thornton spent the next 4 years working part of each year on a road construction crew with his dad in California and part of the year as a bartender in Arizona, living as frugally as possible while saving money to start his company.
“So literally for 4 years everything I owned could fit into a large duffel bag. I would just take that and go to California, and when you are on the road doing road construction you just stay at flea bag motels and so I would take that bag with me and live out of that, and then go back to Arizona and I would sleep on the floor. I was like I don’t need a bed, that’s stupid, that’s just a waste of money,” said Thornton with a laugh.
“The one splurge I would give myself is every time I came back to Arizona I would buy myself a new pillow. I just did that for 4 years. I just knew this is what I have to do to raise the money, so I’m just going to do it. Complaining about it isn’t going to help me do it any quicker. I had a new passion in my life. For those 4 years prior, living without passion is one of the worst things, I don’t wish that on my worst enemy, just wandering through your life and not knowing what you want to do and why you are here, that’s terrible.”
In 2013 Thornton was able to launch Paper Clouds Apparel and get it off the ground. The purpose of the company is to showcase the creative minds and artistic abilities of individuals with special needs while raising funds to provide financial support for special needs schools and organizations. Paper Clouds Apparel is able to achieve their goals by selling t-shirts, hats and totes featuring artwork designed by individuals with special needs. Giving these individuals the chance to have their artwork featured gives them a sense of purpose and meaning and helps them feel important and valued. Paper Clouds Apparel also hires individuals with special needs to package all the clothing, which also provides these individuals with employment that they might not have otherwise. Fifty percent of the net proceeds from the sale of all merchandise is given to the charitable cause that the organization is promoting in each campaign. Campaigns run every two weeks and they feature a variety of great causes.
But Thornton didn’t just stop there, running the Paper Clouds Apparel company also led to him starting another organization called Cloud Covered Streets as well.
“Cloud Covered Streets just started up a little over a year ago. The idea to help the homeless just basically came out of me being in my truck driving around town a lot, going to my screen printer or going to my wholesaler or going to our workers with special needs to pick up the shirts. I was always on the road and I would just see these people at the intersection that would you know, be holding their sign and asking for help and they were always wearing shirts that were dirty and had holes in them and I just remember seeing them and thinking to myself, dude you run an apparel company, you need to do something about this,” said Thornton.
Although it started with the idea of giving the homeless a free t-shirt, it quickly grew from there. Right away Thornton had the idea of also giving them each a handwritten letter of hope, and he made a call out to his followers on social media and asked for help. He was floored when within just a couple of week hundreds of heartfelt letters of hope came pouring in from all over the country. Thornton says this was a moment where he realized there are so many people out there that really do care, and that want to help others.
“I remember the very first time I ever went out and the second person I spoke with. I went to a park and saw this gentleman sitting down. My friend Bree and I both approached him and at the time this guy was just sitting down in a pair of shorts and didn’t even have a shirt on. He just had like some little belongings next to him, and I was like ‘hey my name is Robert here’s a new shirt for you and here’s a letter of hope’, and his name was Daniel,” Thornton recalled. “So I shook his hand and we were talking and all of a sudden he put his face in his hands and started crying, and I remember just looking at my friend Bree and thinking‘did I say something wrong?’ and I asked “hey is everything Ok? He then told me everything that he owned had been stolen a week ago and he didn’t even own a t-shirt, didn’t even have a shirt.”
That was the second light bulb time in Thornton’s life and he realized he needed to do more than just going out every once in a while and handing out free t-shirts. That was when the idea of Cloud Covered Streets and starting a non-profit company to help the homeless was born.
“It’s just been really cool to see it grow. Now we have street teams I think in like 12 different cities and now we’re working on trying to get the crowd funding to get our first mobile shower and laundry trailer out on the streets, so it’s been super cool to see the amount of support that we have gotten from around the country,” said Thornton. “We’re led to believe by media that people are bad and that they are just awful but the reality is the majority of people really want to help each other and they want to make this world a better place and there’s just some beautiful people out there and I’ve been very fortunate to have them somehow find out about what I’m doing and want to help out. So it’s been super, super cool.”
Through donations Cloud Covered streets is able to provide backpacks full of toiletry items as well as socks and t-shirts and letters of hope. Thornton’s mom and other volunteers also prepare snack bags full of non-perishable food items, many times also hand painting pictures of clouds and caring messages on each one to show them just how much they care.
As Thornton talks about the impact that handing a grown man a pair of new socks and watching it bring him to tears has had on him, you can tell he is truly genuine and really does care about these people. Thornton says it's also interesting to him to see what particular thing that they offer is going to make the most impact to the people that he meets, for some it's the snacks and others it's the letter of hope. Still for some it's the fact that Thornton walks up and shakes their hands and not only ask their name, but remembers it the next time he sees them.
“When is the last time you think someone took the time to shake their hands or bother to remember their name? I consider these guys my friends, just because a person is homeless doesn't mean they can't be my friend. It’s been amazing to me too, it’s frustrating to me the image the media portrays to us of what homelessness is. They want us to believe that every single homeless person is a drug addict, that they are all drunks, that they want to steal from us, that they are all mentally ill, so it’s fun for me to bring out new people with me on my street missions and have them to see what homelessness is really like," explained Thornton.
"We have a massive amount of people in this country that are living pay check to paycheck and if you lose that job and you don’t have friends and family to help you out, what’s your option? You end up homeless,” said Thornton. “Getting back off the streets is 10 times harder than it is to become homeless and definitely when I was younger and more ignorant, I would drive by people that were panhandling and just look at them and think, why don’t they just get a job? They are physically able to work, why don’t they get a job? But as I become more immersed in this culture, I’ve definitely learned how exactly do you get a job without an address? Without a cell phone number? Without access to the internet? Everything is stacked against them., as far as getting back on their feet, which is extremely frustrating. I just wish the general public would understand that the odds are stacked against them, over the majority of people that I meet they’ll ask me, do you have any work? Do you know anybody that is hiring? For anything. We have this idea that the homeless are lazy and they don’t want to work, when again in reality they want to, they are just like how do I get a job or how do I even go in to an interview looking like this?”
Which is why getting mobile shower and laundry trailers out on the streets is so important to Thornton and the Cloud Covered Streets organization. Unfortunately at a lot of the city shelters many of the homeless people end up getting robbed of their valuables by other homeless indiviuals if they stop in to take a shower, and will avoid going there. Thornton wants to combat that by providing the mobile units with a schedule that will be easy for homeless individuals to know. In addition to being able to take a shower and do laundry, Thornton has stylists friends who will give free haircuts as well. They will also have a wireless laptops and printers to help with job resumes and applications.
“I want to give the portion of the homeless population that really does want to get back on their feet, just give them the opportunity to at least clean themselves up so they can go and have job interviews. It’s one of those things I’ve definitely learned with the homeless community is that I want to help them, if I could find a way to get every single one of them off the streets I would, but they’ve got to also really want it as well. And a lot of them unfortunately have kind of given up on themselves or accepted that this is their life and so I want them to know that it’s not, and hey I can’t give you a job but I can give you the tools, but they have to kind of want it themselves,” said Thornton.
“If we just find them work and give them a job, it’s really easy for them to slip back into old habits and then end up homeless again. I want to really empower them. There is a portion of the population that they are homeless by their choice, and my idea on them is , alright, we’re all on our own path in this world, it’s not for me to tell you that that’s the wrong path for you, but I still want to try to make your time on the streets a little easier, I still want to give you access to things that help your personal hygiene and let you feel human.”
Thornton is out there hitting the streets with Cloud Covered Streets just about every single Tuesday and Thursday, in addition to running the Cloud Covered Apparel business.
"I really try to get out there and do all that I can and to meet new people and just let them know that there are people out there that still care about them. Our end game is just to make sure that they don’t lose hope. Without hope we’re useless, we need that. So I want to let them know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, because again it’s been cool for me to see the synergy between Paper Clouds Apparel and Cloud Covered Streets,” said Thornton.
“Both the homeless community and individuals with special needs are both a portion of the population that people want to try to kind of ignore and look through and kind of put in the corner and not really have to deal with. People treat them like they are less than human, both portions of these populations; special needs get treated like they are less than human and the homeless get treated like they are less than human. I want them to feel human again and to feel important and to know they still have worth.”
Thornton is a great story teller who is warm and engaging in conversation, it makes the conversation flow along so smoothly and effortlessly, it's easy to see why he is such a hit going out and meeting people and making them feel welcome and important. He also can’t help but radiate his enthusiasm and his love for people and his passion for his purpose, which is refreshing in this day and age when everyone seems to try so hard to not show any emotion or excitement. He also has a pretty amazing beard, which doesn’t hurt anything either in my humble opinion.
Thorntonis also a live music lover and has merged his love of the Red Dirt and Texas Country scene with Paper Cloud Apparel in an exciting way. Starting October 9th they are launching a campaign where they have teamed up with 20 different artists from the Red Dirt and Country Music scene to sell shirts with the musicians's names on them designed by individuals with special needs. There will be 20 different shirts available over a 2 month period, starting with 5 t-shirt designs available at a time every two weeks. Half of the proceeds from each shirt will go directly to the charitable cause chosen by that musician. Names include Jason Boland, Kaitlin Butts, Shiny Ribs, Cody Canada and more. You can find all of the artists and shirts available on these posters.
I was lucky enough to get both a Shiny Ribs and a Turnpike Troubadours shirt from Thornton at Medicine Stone and have been wearing them quite a bit already. They are so soft and comfortable, easily my new favorite t-shirts. The designs are fantastic, and what a perfect way to support the music that you love, different charitable causes and individuals with special needs all in one fell swoop just by purchasing t-shirts. You can’t go wrong. I fully expect everyone who reads this to buy at least one shirt if not three, and then share it with all of your friends so that they can do the same. They will only be available for a limited time, so you don't want to miss out on this amazing opportunity to be involved.
You also need to go check out the websites www.papercloudsapparel.com and www.cloudcoveredstreets.com as well as check out their social media pages to stay up to date and find out way that you can get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to jump in and help with either of these organizations, from making donations, to writing letters of hope, to simply spreading the word and helping others learn more about it. All it takes is one person and one small act of kindness to change the world. You can be that person.