Eleanor Roosevelt, who paved the way for so many strong and independent women leaders, famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Her statements were backed up a few years later by one Lady Gaga, who noted, “Remember there’s always someone fighting for you.”
Both of these women are expressing that being strong, and gaining strength from other’s encouragement, are still relevant. When doing something difficult, it helps to have a strong community to back you up, keep you inspired, and help ferry you across those dark nights of the soul.
But that’s what can make changing habits and losing weight so difficult. It’s really one of the most personal and individual things you can do. It’s all about your body and your actions. It can be hard to make a community out of something so atomized. But that’s what Weight Watchers has done, and by using cool new social media technology, and the magic of gift exchange services, a group of Weight Watchers members have taken it even further.
Social media has made it easier than ever to find like-minded, encouraging people to help us through tough times and to help us summit difficult peaks. Healthy weight loss, which is really a sustained lifestyle choice, is one of those challenging summits. But by forming a community of support, and by sending each other gifts to help create a stronger community that knows each other better, a nationwide group has expanded exponentially. They’re connected by technology. They’re connected by a shared struggle. They’re connected by the victories that happen every day. And, in this sometimes autonomous world, they’re connected by friendship.
As the Lifetime Weight Watchers member who co-runs the group, Stephanie Keller, tells us: they hang together.
Finding Friendship Across the Country
The most amazing part about the group is that people are nice, and are almost unrelentingly positive and supportive—an enormous difference from so many other parts of the internet, which (spoiler alert!) can be mean. Anonymous online users on other sites are sometimes known for tearing others down for a quick anonymous thrill. That’s not conducive to healthy attitudes. But, as Stephanie explained to us, her Weight Watchers Connect group doesn’t have any of that.
“Connect,” she explained, “is like Facebook, but it’s entirely positive. No one is ever negative on there. People share stuff and tell each other things that they can never share anywhere else. People admit to troubles and addictions. They share their stories. And the best part is that they’re supportive and motivational. On the internet, to virtual strangers, they’re sharing their before and after pictures. It’s safe. Nobody wants to see someone else fail.”
You could hear the excitement in Stephanie’s voice as she told us about the growth of Connect, which users join through the Weight Watchers app. She mentions that it’s “very hashtag based,” which can be intimidating to some users, but it’s also very user-friendly, and everyone is extremely helpful; Stephanie believes that’s the most important part.
“Everybody that’s on there struggles with their weight somehow, and some members have no one who’s supportive in their life. That’s where Connect comes in. I’ve made friends all over the country on there and we’re now friends offline too. Everybody is really, really kind on there.”
But some people have taken it a step further with a #WWSendTheLove group. We profiled them last year, talking to founder Stephanie Encin, when the group had really just started to get going. The idea was simple: members of the group would send each other motivational gifts to help each other with their journey. It was instantly a huge success.
Since then, Stephanie Encin turned the reigns over to Stephanie Keller and Davita Ritchie in October 2016, who before this technology would probably never have met (Stephanie is in New Jersey, and Davita lives in New Mexico). Their group has grown ever since, with as many as 850 participants. It’s something both incredibly simple, and emotionally wonderful: a gift exchange. It’s how they turn a community of like-minded, friendly, encouraging people into actual friends.
The Gift of Friendship
The group uses the Elfster Gift Exchange, which makes a nationwide program incredibly manageable and fun. It’s purely voluntary: you sign up to give and receive a gift box from someone else in your group every month. For about $25, people fill their box with 10-12 little, inspirational items. But the real heart of it is that you learn about the person you’re matched with.
Stephanie explained that it wasn’t just a matter of getting assigned a random person, and then sending them something. You may already sort of know them through Connect, or maybe they’re a total stranger, but, once matched, you start talking to them. You chat or exchange messages about what they like, where they live, who they are, and more. You discover their needs and wants, and then you send them something. For example, if someone you know was having a spring party, you might send them something green and seasonal.
And you get something too! “It’s like Christmas every month,” says Stephanie.
Some gift ideas include:
- Motivational posters: When facing challenges, it’s always good to have something that bucks you up, lifts your spirit, and gives you the strength to keep going. Posters can be moving or funny, but if they’re sent with your gift partner in mind, they’ll always be meaningful.
- Inspirational calendars: I love 365-day calendars, whether they’re words or movie quotes or comics. But when faced with the daily challenges of healthy eating, a calendar with a different inspirational quote every day can be as fresh a wake-up as a cup of coffee.
- Coffee mugs: Of course, real coffee is also as important as metaphorical coffee, which is why mugs are always a great gift.
- Weight Watchers-inspired cookbooks: The best part about Weight Watchers is that you can make delicious meals while maintaining points and using the right ingredients. The organization has many cookbooks that make healthy eating easy and fun. It’s a great way to keep your friend on the path.
But one of the great joys is that this is a national group, so you get interesting gifts from all over the country. One of Stephanie’s favorite gifts was a genuine Alaskan Ulu knife.
Other popular gifts include water bottles or food items, like powdered peanut butter, and foodstuffs that can only be found in certain regions. Some members don’t have a Whole Foods, Aldi, or Trader Joe’s near them, but their gift exchange partner might. They might receive something they’ve been craving from afar, in a Christmas box in the middle of the spring.
A Few of Your Favorite Things
In January, Oprah got involved with the Weight Watchers Connect program, giving it that patented Oprah boost. But Stephanie thinks the Queen of Daytime should also get to know the #WWSendTheLove group.
“This is about people helping people,” she tells us. “This is a really great, motivational, positive program. People come back month after month. They don’t have to do it again, but they do. I get tagged and emailed all day long from people wanting to join. It was started by one person, and now it’s huge. It’s the power of people.” Stephanie believes that if Weight Watchers really got behind this—and who knows, maybe even Oprah—that it could be taken to the next level.
At Elfster, we can testify to their power. We’re proud to say that they’re the largest group we’ve ever hosted! Gift exchanges are a fun way to bring groups of friends closer together, or to turn groups of strangers into friends. It’s easy to get started, and as Stephanie and Davita show, they can be run by people on opposite sides of the country as if they were in the same room. That’s what makes them such a great tool for bonding; in a way, they bring the whole community into a big room.
And at the end, the bigger the community, the more people can feel loved. They can feel friendship and non-judgemental connections. It’s how strength is formed, and how real life changes are made. And it just makes life more fun! It’s the gift of being alive, and being a part of something. Stephanie and Davita’s group embraces technology, and relies on it, but it isn’t a technological solution. It’s people connecting to people. If more of life could come down to that, we’d all be better off.
Interested in joining the fun? Look up these hashtags on Weight Watchers Connect: #sendthelove, #wwsendthelove, #wwsendthelove(month), and #sendthelove(month). Stephanie and Davita can also be reached on Connect at @StephanieKeller65 or @LadyRoscoe.
Are you part of a community that uses a gift exchange? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or on Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for inspired gifting ideas, browse our gift guides.