It’s ridiculously early. I’m attempting to drag myself out of bed, and trying to fight off the all-too-familiar dark haze from seeping into the cracks of my day. Bleary-eyed, I sit up in bed, trying to focus on the blurred notes in front of me.
Meeting with Jess.
All images by Jessica Ross Photography - Interview with Jessica Shuwalow (Pictured: Right)
If I knew exactly how I was going to feel after the interview, I would have bounced myself out of bed and probably had the energy to run to Welsh Blacks and back, well before our meeting was even due to start. On a few rare occasions, during an interview, the tables are turned. Not only am I reminded of why I enjoy talking to people for a living, but most importantly why I enjoy listening about the lives of others, and piecing together some wonderful words to tell their story to a niche readership.
‘It’s so nice to finally meet you!’ Jess arrives with open arms, literally glowing with life. It was actually lucky we were able to schedule the interview when we did: ‘I’m a week overdue,’ Jess tells me through casual sips. Her words come from a place of complete realisation and peace of mind, whereas I, at least briefly, sat on the edge of my seat with everything crossed, hoping today was not that day. But the more I talked with Jess, the more I relaxed into our conversation. There was a real sense of calm by association, which is quite a feat for someone who drinks as much coffee as I do.
It’s been a mutual, virtual friendship between Jess and Gem from The Grateful and me. See, not that you’d pick it, but I definitely have a thing for flowers. The way not only colour, but a simple gesture can say so much with so little – it’s something that makes this hopeless romantic’s heart swoon. So after months of wanting to find out more about exactly what The Grateful is, as both a business and an action, and with Mother’s Day coming up, I was finally able to sit down and tell their story.
The Grateful is an initiative that gives individual customers or businesses the platform to treat themselves, or someone they love (hint hint Mother’s Day), to a beautiful bouquet of flowers, all the while knowing you’re also giving a beautiful array of colour to someone who needs it most. It’s taking away the traditional means of transaction and focusing on connection, something that is really lost in this age of technology. ‘Newcastle is amazing; it’s so diverse,’ says Jess of the response to The Grateful initiative. ‘There’s this community that’s so innovative and wants to do more, but it really comes down to presenting a platform for people to be able to do that. That’s what the crux of the concept of The Grateful really is.’
But this line of work is a far cry from Jess’ previous endeavours. Being in Newcastle, I knew Jess and I would be connected somewhere along the line, but to find out she grew up in the tiny South Coast town of Eden, where my Dad’s side of the family are from – a place that’s never really on anyone’s radar (except if you’re tracking the whale migration) – was a bit of a surreal experience. But as any innovator or creative spirit knows, there always comes a time to leave the nest and chase all the world as to offer. Gradually moving further north, first to Sydney then four years ago to Newcastle, Jess’ trajectory was far from her current place and peace of mind. ‘I’ve always worked in business and finance, but I’m such an extrovert and I love the outdoors. It just drove me crazy being inside all the time.’ Picturing this ridiculously bubbly, wonderful life force stuck in a 9-5 cubicle, keeping the world turning, is too far-fetched a juxtaposition for even my brain to comprehend.
So where and why did Jess decide to make the jump to focus on truly paying it forward? Where did the idea come from? ‘Last year I went to Africa and South America, and it’s the second time I’ve gone and worked in a clinic. I did some volunteering to help people give birth and help with those suffering with malaria… But you go in there and it’s just concrete walls. These people are on their death beds and there’s absolutely nothing to look at.’ Although focusing on improving the overall aesthetics and sense of community within these overseas clinics was her initial priority, the need for such a beautification project arose much closer to home. ‚My sister went to the John Hunter to check out the birthing suite, and was really met with such a sterile environment. It was then I started asking myself, “Why wait until I travel again?” There’s something that I can do here now.’ Initially wanting to build a boutique, with the same pay-it-forward principle, Jess was fairly limited by space. But in stepped friend and now business partner Gem McBurnie, and The Grateful, fuelled by flowers, was born.
Although the crux of the business is currently conducted online, it’s the ultimate aim for The Grateful to find a permanent home in Carrington, as Jess reveals. ‘Carrington just has that personality and character… But it’s missing that deeper connection through exchange. I wanted to create an environment and provide the community with a chance to receive that exchange, to feel part of something much bigger and to take a little piece of Carrington back with them… A stress-free sense of accessibility and community. That’s what it’s about.’ As someone who lived in Carrington for nearly two years, it really does seem to be in a world all of its own, and in my eyes, the perfect place for a true centre of humility.
At the end of the day, we’re all guilty of succumbing to consumerism. I know personally when I have a bad day, or even a really good day, all that flashes through my mind is ‘Treat yourself’. And so I do. But knowing that it doesn't just stop with me, that I’m not purely pouring my hard-earned cash back into the turning wheel of big business, that I’m actually able to help someone – to generate a sense of feeling and work towards establishing an unconscious connection with someone who needs it most – that’s not just empty consumerism at all. It’s about being part of a community, and the entire ethos of The Grateful.
It was at this point in the interview where the tables began to turn. Something clicked. I’ve always loved talking to someone about what they’re passionate about. Asking what drives them? What makes them happy? I found myself talking with Jess and being absorbed by her completely organic drive to do good. And it was in that moment that I really began to understand exactly why The Grateful exists, and exactly why it will work.
There was no set agenda. No sense of misguided direction. And we were essentially and subconsciously sharing a moment between us, where we were simply enjoying and celebrating all that we loved to do. ‘Life is not all that hard,’ Jess says with a final smile. And she’s right. Because essentially, it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other, driving towards a passionate life, and learning to be truly grateful.