Free Sylvie

Typically it takes a team of attorneys or an airtight alibi to earn an early release.

Or sometimes, it just takes a t-shirt and a hashtag.

Sylvie Mix, a 16-year-old student at Columbus Alternative High School learned this the hard way. But what could have been a long and lonely wait until winter break became a life lesson in marketing, moxie, and making a difference.

This past September, Maika Carter, Sylvie’s mother, was recovering from recent surgery and staying with a friend. Meanwhile, Sylvie was spending the night at a classmate’s home.

Well, that’s what she told her mom—but that’s not what happened.

“It was just supposed to be a few girlfriends watching a movie,” explained Sylvie.

But when a parent-free pad and social media meet, small get-togethers quickly escalate in scale and scope. Someone had a bit too much beverage and ended up going to the ER. That’s when Carter first learned of the unsanctioned soirée—via a Facebook message from that teen’s mother in the early hours of the morning.

By the time Carter arrived home in her bathrobe and slippers, the party was all but over. By Monday morning, everyone at school knew what happened. Stern discussions followed, and Sylvie was grounded until winter break.

And that’s where the story could have ended—but that’s also not what happened.

“She’s a good kid with good grades—they all are,” admitted Carter. “But it was very disrespectful, and I was surprised by how easily she was swayed to act against her better judgment.”

In fact, Carter received several apology letters from students who were there. “I really like Sylvie’s friends,” she explained. “This was so out of character for them, especially considering my situation, and they knew it.”

But still feeling the punishment didn’t match the crime, Sylvie’s friends rallied for a retrial in the court of public opinion. Carter’s close connection to her daughter’s cohort made her an easy mark for Sylvie’s social media supporters.

“Her friends would message begging me to reconsider the length of the punishment,” explained Carter. “They’d post quotes from Johnny Cash and Tupac. It was very tongue-in-cheek, but still sincere.”

Sylvie quipped that she should start a hashtag to raise awareness of her wrongful incarceration; #freesylvie was born, and solidarity followed.

Rather than letting this battle of banter brew, Carter decided to let Sylvie earn her parole in a more positive way than simply staying cooped up for a couple of months. Inspired by her friends’ fervor, and with access to the screen-printing facilities at Abnormal Allies, she proposed that if Sylvie could design, print, and sell 50 t-shirts that would publicly acknowledge her remorse, they would amount to time served.

“The number of shirts was somewhat arbitrary. I wanted it to be attainable, but not easy,” Carter said. “We also had to decide what to do with the profits if there were any, and knew the Mid Ohio Food Bank could use some extra help this time of year.”

So Sylvie emblazoned the shirts with a stylized self-portrait wearing a halo and FREE SYLVIE. As part of the plea deal, she had to pay for the upfront costs herself. Selling the finished product for $10 a piece seemed reasonable enough. Promoting the cause through Facebook and Instagram, Sylvie schlepped the shirts to school.

Sales from Free Sylvie t-shirts have allowed the Mid Ohio Food Bank to provide nearly 3,000 meals to Central Ohio families in need—so far.

“At first, it was mostly friends buying them,” Sylvie noted. “But by the end of the day, it was students I didn’t know and even a teacher or two.”

To her mother’s surprise, she sold 42 shirts on the first day, with more requests than remained in the initial run. Those profits were rolled into another run, and that’s when sales really took off.

“Online orders have come in from Athens, Pittsburgh, New York and Montreal,” Sylvie said. “Friends have told the story to their friends, posted photos wearing the shirts, and word just spread.”

Initial online orders were a hodgepodge of Facebook and Instagram requests. But Sylvie has since launched a formal online retail store to make things more manageable. “Keeping track of the orders was more stressful than either of us expected,” she confessed.

With her mother’s encouragement, and the support of friends and strangers, Sylvie delivered her first donation to the Mid Ohio Food Bank the week before Thanksgiving.

“As the communications and digital media manager, I first learned about the project through posts on Instagram,” said Yolanda Owens, of the Mid Ohio Food Bank. “I’m excited about the effort, and how it can continue to be an ongoing project.”

“One of the bigger initiatives for the Mid Ohio Food Bank is providing more fresh food. Not only are fresh foods healthier for the community, but also cheaper for us to acquire,” Owens said. “That’s why it’s critical to get cash donations as well, so we can make those dollars go further.” “It feels so much better than just having her just sit in her room; to take responsibility for her actions in a way that gives back,” added Carter.

Sales from Free Sylvie t-shirts have allowed the Mid Ohio Food Bank to provide nearly 3,000 meals to Central Ohio families in need—so far.

Sylvie, who is considering a career in graphic design, said she plans to keep printing shirts to meet demand. “At first, having to tell everyone what I did was embarrassing. But now I realize my mistake can inspire others to think about more than themselves.”

If you’d like to buy your own Free Sylvie and support the Mid Ohio Food Bank, visit freesylvie.bigcartel.com.

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