If anyone needed some inspiration, it was Steve Brecht, a 63-year-old retired construction supervisor newly diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Early one morning before his family awoke, as he padded downstairs to the garage sanctuary where he tinkers and repairs, inspiration was waiting for him.
Propped on his work bench, below peg boards heavy with wrenches, hammers, and screwdrivers, was a surprise: a framed photo of a serene canal with an orange sun on the horizon and the message, “Life is tough. be yourself, stay positive and better things will be yours.”
This was no off-the-rack greeting card platitude, but the illustrated tidings of Barbara Mishkin, a Blue Bell businesswoman and artist who for the last year and a half has made it her mission to lift flagging spirits wherever she finds them. She has done it for thousands of people like Brecht through her Inspiration Project, using mostly reproductions of her own art and photography as a background for heartening passages — some original, some made famous by others, but all meant to cheer, comfort, and encourage those who could use “a little reminder that someone cares,” she says. Each note “is that little angel looking over your shoulder.”
For Brecht, Mishkin’s gift was “an awesome thing to come down to” that morning, said his wife, Terry, who had placed it surreptitiously in their Hatfield garage. “At a time when you’re feeling the most vulnerable, it’s nice to have something to affirm that there are better things coming, to keep your head up and keep fighting.”
Mishkin, 72, collaborates with retirement communities, senior centers, schools, hospitals, antihunger groups, and other charities to reach anyone in need of a few good words. Partners include the Abramson Center for Jewish Life, a retirement community in Horsham Township, and Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief charity. Her messages have been tucked inside bag lunches handed out to homeless men waiting in a line near LOVE Park and to drug addicts living on Kensington streets. Elderly residents of nursing facilities find them on their nightstands. Needy children overseas get Mishkins wrapped with their Christmas gifts.
They are sometimes laminated, sometimes framed, as large as 8-by-11 inches and as small as wallet-size. And though most of the sayings are motivating (“You’re always one decision away from a new life”), they can also be funny (“Parenthood: the scariest hood you’ll ever go through”) and wise (“Speak only when you feel that your words are better than silence”). Mishkin, who is Jewish and describes herself as more spiritual than religious, emphasizes that she’s not preaching to anyone, but is aiming for all-inclusive, “big picture” inspiration.
“It can be a positive message at a time when someone can’t imagine anything positive in the world,” said Margaux Murphy, founder of Philadelphia’s Sunday Love Project, which distributes meals and personal care items to people living on the street. Murphy puts Mishkin’s messages in the hoagie lunches and hygiene kits. Some notes are discarded. Some are slipped into pockets for safe keeping.
Mishkin was moved to start her project by one of her own biggest inspirations, Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah was my girl at 4 o’clock. She would say, ‘Do what you love. What’s your legacy going to be?’ I wanted to do something that would make a difference,” said Mishkin, who eventually decided to do for others what Oprah had done for her.
The daughter of a pharmacist and a homemaker, Mishkin studied horticulture and secondary education at Temple University, setting aside her love of art for a more practical career. She married an accountant, and she and husband Nelson raised two sons. Her work life bounded from one small business to the next, from making biographical videos chronicling the lives of elderly subjects to publishing a guide booklet for parents sending children off to college to running a plant service that helped clients enliven their home decor with greenery. Then, at 50, her childhood interest resurfaced.
Miskhin began taking adult enrichment courses and painting the pieces that hang throughout her house in a 55-and-older community. She did landscapes and colorful abstracts and people and places she visited on vacations around the world. She also painted birdhouses, chairs, side tables in colorful rainbowlike designs, and sold her work at local art fairs.
Still, she longed to do something more meaningful with her art. One day, when her husband cleaned up his office and brought home a box of old picture frames, Mishkin got to thinking about Oprah, about purpose and legacy. Within days, she founded the Inspiration Project (unrelated to other similarly named initiatives that aim to spread good cheer). Initially, she put her own money into the charity, but it now is supported by private contributions, as well as with proceeds from the sale of donated frames at her development’s annual art fair, which helps buy paper and computer ink.
Inside Mishkin’s home office, cardboard bins stuffed with frames are stacked five feet high, surrounded by paints, brushes, markers, glue, and sketchbooks, She creates her message art by photographing her work and using those images as backdrops for sayings that six volunteers help her produce. Among them is a neighbor, retired teacher Betty Organt, working with students at the Hill Top Preparatory School in Bryn Mawr, who in turn have made their own framed messages to distribute.
Mishkin always carries a few of her smaller cards in her purse, just in case. She has slipped one into the hands of a harried waitress at a restaurant and an attendant struggling to push a wheelchair passenger to an airport gate.
Neighbor Rita Mesthos has also been on the receiving end. At 64, she is recovering from a traumatic brain injury and coping with seizures.
A glance at the words “You are strong. You are wise. You are loved” makes the retired clinical social worker feel emboldened.
“I’m a fighter by nature,” Mesthos said, “but I pick it up, and it gives me that extra push. I think, ‘Rita, you can do it.’”