Cardiff resident Helice Bridges promotes self-esteem with blue-ribbon message
Helice Bridges abandoned the life of a millionaire years ago.
Today, she is going for a much higher figure — just not in dollars.
She aspires to have a billion of her blue ribbons that are inscribed with the slogan “Who I Am Makes A Difference” disseminated throughout the world.
“Everything I do every day is about getting to a billion,” said Bridges, a resident of Encinitas’ Cardiff community.
The 80-year-old woman, who dubs herself “Grandma Sparky,” is the founder of a movement aimed at making people feel uplifted and valued in a world that so often accentuates negativity.
“We live in a punishment-centered society based on blame and shame,” Bridges said. “We look at what is not working and tell people what they’re doing wrong. It crushes the human spirit.”
Her approach includes recruiting children, parents, organizations and cities throughout the world to participate and promote the blue-ribbon message.
To date, Bridges estimates, her movement has touched at least 50 million people.
Her strategy unfolds from a simple act: telling someone “Who you are makes a difference,” placing the blue ribbon above their heart, explaining it’s to encourage their best dreams to come true and exclaiming, “Bing!” as a lighthearted gesture.
The recipient is asked to take a pair of ribbons and share the message with others.
“People need just one person to tell them that they matter and it will save their life,” Bridges said. “Every time you hear a ‘bing,’ you know someone’s dream is being fulfilled.”
Blue ribbon encounters inspired testimony from witnesses who say they were helped as a result. One story was about how a father’s delivery of the blue-ribbon message to his son saved the boy from the precipice of suicide.
The episode appeared in the first edition of Jack Canfield’s enormously popular book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
“That’s a New York Times best-selling book,” Bridges said. “The story was later made into a television movie that aired nationwide. It was also No. 1 on YouTube for 10 weeks.
“It’s a very important story because the No. 2 leading cause of death is suicide among kids 10 years old to 24.”
Bridges’ success led to speaking engagements. Among numerous events, she appeared at the United Nations’ Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which also featured then-Vice President Al Gore and the Dalai Lama.
“I’ve been to a lot of places because the ribbon has taken me there,” she said.
More recently, she participated in TED talks. TED is an online audio and video conference in which innovators share their ideas. The organization’s name is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design.
Bridges created the organization Difference Makers International with the self-explanatory slogan “Helping Kids Live Extraordinary Lives.”
She wrote the book “Who I am Makes a Difference: The Power of Acknowledgement — The Stories That Inspire Dignity and Respect Among All People.”
The book outlines the 10-Step Blue Ribbon Ceremony she created to expand on the initial concept and shows how adherents could share it with others.
Acclaimed psychologist and author Dr. Ken Druck, a Del Mar-area resident, described the ceremony as “the antidote to anger, violence and self-destruction.”
In his endorsement of the book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” author Canfield wrote that her “acknowledgement system gives children and adults of all ages the long overdue right to be appreciated, respected, loved and nurtured by the society in which they live.”
Early on in her journey toward becoming a leader in the self-esteem movement, Bridges adopted the nickname “Sparky,” which evolved into “Grandma Sparky.”
“In 1984, I thought I was supposed to save the world myself,” she said. “I was so overwhelmed and stressed, I asked everybody to call me Sparky so that I’d lighten up. ...
“Later with my grandkids, I started to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m at the age where I could be called Grandma Sparky. So it’s a warm-hearted feeling for people.”
The mother of two sons and the grandmother to five children credits her founding of the Blue Ribbon movement to a series of spiritual revelations.
Depressed by an unhappy marriage, Bridges said, she was on the verge of suicide.
“We had a home on the ocean in Del Mar,” she said. “We were very successful in business, but our marriage wasn’t so good. We weren’t very compatible.
“I was 37 at the time. It was 1979 when I left. I walked out of our million-dollar house on the ocean in Del Mar. I became suicidal. I just wanted to check out.
“What did save my life was the very day I was going to a take my life, I fell to my knees and I screamed to the heavens, I was sobbing. I said, ‘Stop the world, I gotta get off and find a place where people love each other.”
Then, Bridges said, a voice whispered to her: “You can’t take your life because you’re going to sing, dance, write and have a musical on Broadway. And you will bring love to the world. I heard it just like I’m talking to you. So that voice saved my life.”
After telling a friend about her vision, the friend advised her to go to a casting studio. Bridges was asked to sing some lines and, having no experience, she began singing badly off-key.
Silence ensued, she said, before those in attendance started laughing and applauding.
“I got the role because they thought I was a comedian,” she said. “I landed the role with these professional kids who had worked on Broadway and Las Vegas stages. They were 17 to 23 and I was 36.
“(The cast) rehearsed for three months just to do a one-night show. ... So I got to learn how to sing and perform. I had three numbers in the show. I loved it.”
She has done two musicals including “Shaking Hands with Destiny: The True Story of the Making of a Blue Ribbon World,” which appeared at The Lyceum on Broadway in downtown San Diego.
“I had to make a musical on Broadway,” she said. “That’s all I knew. And The Lyceum was on Broadway.”
Buoyed by the experience, Bridges gathered the courage to get over her depression and predicament.
“I had a voice that was within me that said ‘I had to make a difference,” she said. “I wound up volunteering for the San Diego Hunger Project.”
The hunger project led to another trajectory when she encountered people who talked about their despair: a boy said his family was going to lose their home because their father lost his job; a girl’s mother had cancer and she didn’t know how they were going to get by; a teacher was at a loss because her son had been arrested for drugs.
“It hit me that maybe people just needed to be loved, like me,” Bridges said. “I bought a thousand buttons that said, ‘Who I Am Makes A Difference: My Hunger Project Game.’”
“I went up to people everywhere and I’d slap a button on them ... and then people wanted to buy the buttons. ... People everywhere had the buttons.”
Bridges said she raised more than $100,000 for the Hunger Project. The campaign shifted when a woman who was inspired by the campaign suggested ribbons as an alternative.
Bridges left the Hunger Project due to another mystical experience, she said. An inner voice told her she needed to go to Israel, where she wound up working on a kibbutz, a communal farm.
“On Feb. 5, 1981, I gave up my Mercedes, my clothes, my jewelry, anything I owned, and I left with a one-way ticket to Israel,” she said.
“I lived there for six months working in the fields, cleaning roads, climbing grapefruit trees, scrubbing floors. I did everything. I went from millionaire to migrant worker.
“I came back from Israel and my life was changed. You can’t come from an affluent beach town and talk to anybody about being a migrant worker. Everybody looked at me like I was a nut case.”
Upon her return, she and some friends talked about what they could do together. Bridges said she brought up the blue ribbon concept.
“I said, ‘I just want to tell people that they’re loved and appreciate them. I want to change San Diego,’” Bridges said. “They said, ‘We want to do that with you.’”
She invited some people to her house to talk about the idea and about 70 showed up, she said.
“I said, ‘We’re going to put on rose-colored glasses and see the good in everybody. I want you to honor people with these ribbons.
“I built a small team of kids, adults, grandparents and business people and I sent them out with ribbons and I said, ‘Go honor people. Come back and tell me what happens.’ Thirty-five thousand people were honored in the first three months. Everybody wanted a ribbon.”
Three decades later, the campaign is still going on and growing stronger as more folks get on board with her Blue Ribbons Worldwide campaign and Standing Strong Together, her community building and leadership training program.
Whether Bridges succeeds in her mission of reaching a billion blue-ribbon recipients remains to be seen. Yet, the world certainly will be a better place because of her efforts.
Information on Helice “Grandma Sparky” Bridges and her work can be found at blueribbons.org.
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