How I Became the Button Lady

In 1978, my life had come to a stop. I was newly in recovery for substance use disorder, my husband had walked out of our marriage leaving me with a 2-year old daughter, I had no job. My soon-to-be ex mother-in-law sent me a spiritual book (now out of print) entitled I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes by Glenn Clark, which promised me that my Higher Power had written me a blank check, and that I could have my heart’s desire, even though it could take five years, if I could answer honestly three questions:

  1. Was it a heart’s true desire?

  2. Would it hurt anyone?

  3. Would it help anyone?

What I wanted more than anything was to be self supporting through my own business as an artist, and for God to use all my gifts/ talents. I had made art all my life, but never dared to make a living at it. My mother was an artist, and raised me in her image, but my father always encouraged my writing. In my sophomore year of high school I won the first prize in the school-wide art show, and the first prize for prose in the literary magazine. Art and writing were running neck and neck. But by graduation, though I wanted to go to art school, I was sent to a state college, and encouraged to get into an English teaching curriculum, to “have something to fall back on.”

So yes, having my own art business was my heart’s true desire. I couldn’t think of how it could hurt anyone--- but I also couldn’t think of how it could help anyone. I just knew I had to do something with myself, and that involved finding the perfect daycare for my little daughter. Trying out my newly-found spirituality, I prayed for the first time about it, and the next morning my child woke up and said “Mommy, my angel was with me!” and I began to believe that everything might be OK.

I did a pros and cons list, and realized if I brought her to the University Children’s Co-op, I could study art at Virginia Commonwealth University! At the University of Richmond’s (now defunct) Women’s Center, I discovered that the deadline for the scholarships I was eligible for was that afternoon, so I sat down in their office and wrote my application essay. As I stepped out the door, the University’s Carillon bells started playing the Beatles song, “If there’s anything that you want, If there’s anything that you need, just call on me and I’ll bring it on home with love from me to you.” I received both teaching scholarships I’d applied for, though I could only accept one! I attended VCU’s art education program and ended up doing my student teaching for art at a local private girl’s school, St. Catherine’s. There I saw my first button machine, and fell in love with children’s art, and my own art in a button! It made everything look so polished and professional!

My dad, now in a local nursing home, loaned me money to buy my own button machine, and I started going to fairs and events where I charged a small sum for children to make their own buttons, and I also sold my own designs. A friend of mine in 12-step recovery told me about a nearby 12-step convention, and encouraged me to go there to sell my own button designs. I put 12-step and other spiritual and humorous slogans on the buttons and illustrated them: “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction,” “God Loves You and I’m Trying!” “Remember, It Came to Pass, It Didn’t Come to Stay!” Other friends advocated for me to sell at the conventions, and so I went and sold out! Recovering folks at the conventions said that reading all of my buttons was like being at a meeting! My lack of marketing skills helped too, because I just dumped them in a pile, which people could root through like being at a yard sale!

Each new convention I went to was a little further away and a little more complicated to get to, but I kept earning more money, and before I knew it I was making barely enough money to support myself and my daughter. But one day at a copy shop, before I had my own printer, someone who saw my button prints told me how much my buttons had meant to them, how they had really helped them get through some dark moments, and it was at that moment that I quietly realized my heart’s true desire was manifesting. My buttons were actually helping people. And I was using both my art work and my writing. But buttons, God? Really? Around that time I went to a movie called “Oh God Book Two” about a little girl who was called upon to be God’s PR person, and that little girl looked just like I looked as a little girl with black pigtails. And, she had my same unusual bedspread. And I listened and I heard.

Soon after, at Arts in the Park, where I had a booth, the owners of a religious bookstore saw my buttons. They said if I could make a catalog within two weeks they would take it to a bookstore convention and promote them. Right then and there a system of categorization popped into my head that I still use. I created the catalog in time, and that catalog enabled me to market to the Mom and Pop 12-step stores that were springing up all around the country. Using visualization techniques that I was learning in recovery, I found an adorable little 14’ x 20’ one-room building where I was able to move my business from my living room to an actual business location off of Broad Street! A friend in recovery became my office manager. A good friend of mine called the newspaper, and a reporter came by and did a story on us that was featured on the whole front page of the business section! I joined the Chamber of Commerce and learned how to dress like a business person, and I entered and won their Survivor of the Year contest, essentially telling my recovery story with a business slant to a room full of hundreds of business people. That win resulted in another big article in the business section of the newspaper.

After the big wave of recovery crested, sadly many of the Mom and Pop recovery stores went out of business when the Insurance industry stopped paying for addiction rehabilitation. Also my van died and I could no longer afford to go to conventions. As I needed to find other sources of income, I began marketing to local businesses and concerns. I don’t remember how I came to make all the team sports buttons for St. Catherine’s (where I got my start!) and St. Christophers, but now other schools and colleges as well are ordering my photo buttons for team sports. The photobuttons also are wonderful for birthdays, weddings, funerals--- life cycle events.

But if you would like to view my recovery buttons, go to www.JenniferUnlimited.com You can also find my newspaper articles there and read more about how I became The Button Lady. Following that initial heart’s true desire prayer, I went like a pea thru a pea shooter and am still pursuing my dreams.

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