Knox College is home to over 100 clubs and student organizations across campus, from Greek Life and religion to performing arts and recreation. One of the most recent clubs to be added is foreverU, a non-profit youth empowerment organization that aims to combat student division and promote self-love in academic environments.
The organization was founded in 2012 by an Illinois High School student named Ryan Hesslau, current president and CEO of foreverU and now a senior at Trinity Christian College. Combining his interest in entrepreneurial business with his desire to enrich the young adult experience, Hesslau launched foreverU at the age of 16 and presently works to provide resources for youth empowerment camps and workshops, as well as speaking at events for high school students.
In 2014, Hesslau spoke in front of his classmates at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort, IL, where current Knox junior Annie Gerdes was a student at the time. Hesslau’s speech concerning the then-recent suicide of a Lincoln-Way East student resonated with Gerdes and served as her inspiration for establishing the Knox chapter of foreverU in the spring of 2017.
“[foreverU] started as an anti-bullying organization, but over the past few years [it has] changed it into more of a pro-love movement against student division, suffering and bullying; to broaden the spectrum,” Gerdes explains of the organization’s roots. “My first year [at Knox], I played it by ear and I joined [other] clubs, and then my second year I decided that [foreverU] is a positive movement that could start everywhere, so might as well try to bring it here.”
Gerdes’ first order of business in accomplishing this was to obtain the appropriate amount of signatures to demonstrate the student body’s legitimate interest in the club for Student Senate’s approval. “It was difficult,” she said. “I tabled a lot and people would just walk past, so it took probably two terms to get [the signatures] and then you bring [the idea] to Senate and they discuss and they get to decide whether it’s a yes or a no [on the establishment of the club].”
After having received a “yes” from Senate in the winter of 2016, Gerdes, as acting president, quickly formed an executive board that would help her oversee the activities and interests of foreverU’s Knox chapter. Juniors Alex Robertson and Hannah Lewis are the sitting vice president and treasurer, respectively.
“Annie is a really good friend of mine,” Robertson said of her reasons for joining foreverU. “And I saw how important [foreverU] was to her and how involved she was with it É I just thought ‘why not?’ And I think that students feeling safe is a thing that really needs to be taken care of, and them having a safe place [is also important].”
At her San Clemente high school, Robertson was involved in a similar organization called Cool 2 Be Kind, which fought specifically to combat bullying. Because of this, Robertson’s transition to foreverU at Knox was easy.
“[The two organizations are] essentially the same thing, but [in high school] it was with a friend of mine whose brother had committed suicide and she started that organization, so I just started doing it here [with foreverU] … I really just like being involved in things like that.”
While the members of foreverU’s executive board are also teammates on the Knox women’s soccer team, the role of athletics in the club’s success functions beyond just that. In the fall of 2017, Gerdes and other foreverU members hosted a fundraiser during a Knox men’s and women’s soccer game called “Change 4 A Change,” running the concession stand and accepting independent donations that together would accumulate over $500 for foreverU. All funds were donated to Camp Reset, a week-long summer program for high school students at Trinity Christian College, where campers are immersed in the values of foreverU and learn techniques for addressing the challenges of teenage life.
foreverU maintains a promising membership with, according to Gerdes, an average of 15 regular attendees at meetings hosted by foreverU’s executive board. “In the fall, we had about 11 people helping out [for Change 4 A Change]. But we’re really open to everyone coming in [and joining],” she said.
The club’s implementation of monthly initiatives works to reinforce the overall goal of foreverU and facilitate a more positive social experience for every student at Knox. April’s monthly initiative is “Notes of Kindness,” where students are encouraged to write friendly messages of positivity to be distributed and posted around campus. foreverU’s executive board has been tabling the past week outside of the Hard Knox Cafe and providing blank notes to be filled out by students.
In terms of long-term goals for foreverU, Gerdes said she’s interested in finding a way to reach out directly to younger students, a tactic employed by Hesslau as well as other foreverU Associates.
“I really want to eventually get into the school systems,” Gerdes said. “I want to have a stronger core first before [I try to do that], but I hope to eventually be able to pass [the club] off in a year and have more than twenty members. I think that could be a realistic goal, and [I want to] hold as many fundraisers as we can and just put positivity out there.”