Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Fort Wayne, Olivia Ulch was making the transition to working from home as a graphic designer.
She started working for herself fulltime at her business Design Fort Wayne in March. Little did she know, within a matter of days, most of the country would be working from home with her.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Ulch for a loop, like many small business owners, some of her clients have been able to keep paying her. Now, she’s paying her own good fortune forward.
Olivia Ulch stands in front of the My Happy Place mural she created for Fort Wayne in 2019.
In March, Ulch partnered with Premier Signs in Bluffton to launch a sticker-based, pay-it-forward campaign called Support Fort Wayne to drive donations to local restaurants in their time of need.
The way it works is simple. Visit the Support Fort Wayne page on her website, and choose between three stickers designed by Ulch for five dollars each. All of the money donated goes to a local restaurant of your choice, and so far, there are four restaurants participating: Conjure Coffee, Fortezza Coffee, Hop River Brewing Company, and Don Hall's Restaurant Group.
All proceeds from Support Fort Wayne go directly to local restaurants.
But that’s not all, Ulch says. Support Fort Wayne also sends a copy of your sticker to someone you choose at no additional cost, inviting them to join the movement and support local, too.
Ulch says the hope is to create a conga line of pay-it-forward good deeds across the city and inspire local unity.
“I heard this saying about the pandemic that I really liked,” Ulch says. “It goes, ‘We are all in the same storm, but we are all in different boats.’ This experience is impacting us all, but in different ways, and the ultimate answer to that is kindness. The goal of this model is to make it easier to promote kindness and community to those who need it most.”
That said, Ulch explains that if the recipient of a “pay-it-forward” sticker is unable to financially participate, they can simply email her the name and address of someone they would like to pay-it-forward to, and Support Fort Wayne will send that person a sticker to keep the conga line moving.
To make the project possible, she got busy in the first few weeks of quarantine, updating her website capabilities and designing the stickers—all inspired by Fort Wayne's resilience during the pandemic.
There’s a “Neighbors Unite” heart sticker reminiscent of the hearts she's seen decorating windows during the stay home order. Then there’s the “Support The Fort” sticker, representing all of the support for local businesses. Last, but not least, there’s a sticker calling Fort Wayne “The City that Saved Itself… Again,” as a play on the moniker given to the Summit City after the devastating flood of 1982.
“This is my favorite of the bunch,” Ulch says. “I think it’s a very niche Fort Wayne battle cry of unity, so to speak.”
Support Fort Wayne offers three stickers to choose from.
Along with driving donations to local businesses and spreading kindness in the city, printing stickers for the campaign also gives Premier Signs a job right now. Ulch says she first came up with the concept while talking to her friend, Cullen Bryant, one of the company’s owners about how the pandemic is affecting him. Bryant
After working in the sign industry for 10 years, Bryant launched Premier Signs in May 2018 with three other business partners. He’s the only full-time staff member, but he hires part-time workers, and prior to the pandemic, his company was looking to grow.
Now, feeling the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown, his business has seen an 80 percent decrease in sales between March and April 2020 alone.
“The lack of foot traffic at retail stores has probably been the single biggest cause of that,” Bryant says. “There’s also the fact that we don’t have any guarantee of when things will end, so people are hesitant to spend until they have a better outlook on what their sales are going to be.”
But while his own business is hurting, he still feels the call to help others.
“As a business owner, there’s an unspoken obligation you have to give back in any way you can,” Bryant says. “It’s not something I take lightly.”
Over the years, Ulch and Bryant have collaborated on a few creative projects to support Northeast Indiana. Last year, Ulch was selected to participate in the Indiana Arts Commission’s On-Ramp program, which inspired her to create the My Happy Place mural with Premier Signs, which now hangs on the side of Hop River Brewing Company.
Ulch and Bryant collaborated on the My Happy Place mural at Hop River.
Support Fort Wayne is Ulch’s latest love letter to the city. While she is originally from Kendallville, she moved to Fort Wayne about 10 years ago for school at the University of St. Francis and Purdue Fort Wayne. Since then, she’s fallen in love with the city's creative community, which has given her the support to grow and dream up big ideas with far-reaching impact.
“This campaign is the epitome of everything I love about Fort Wayne,” Ulch says. “Here, you have the ability to have your voice be heard, and not only that, but people are willing to come together and support you. Especially as a creator, that incubator of creativity is really valuable.”
Support the Fort is all about building up local unity and community.
Ulch says that while Support Fort Wayne is just getting started, the business owners who are part of the program so far are excited about its potential and assure her that every dollar helps.
More than that, it’s just another testament to the power of local unity she hopes will outlive the pandemic.
“The road ahead involves vulnerability and being honest about our struggles, but also being there to lift one another up,” Ulch says. “I think that will play an important part in our new normal—the new frontier.”