When Hurricane Odile hit the Baja California peninsula in September, Kyle Lawrence wanted to be counted on.
Lawrence, whose family and girlfriend’s family own homes on the peninsula, sought to give something to people affected by the disaster.
“Cabo has a special place in my heart, and I wanted to do something to help,” he said.
Lawrence, 24, who graduated from Newport Harbor High School in 2009 and later earned a business and hospitality management degree from Ohio State University, founded his company The Smile Life in October originally to help people in the aftermath of Hurricane Odile.
The tropical cyclone inflicted widespread damage, particularly in the state of Baja California Sur, with impacts on the Mexican mainland.
Shelters were opened, helping 30,000 people, and approximately 26,000 foreign tourists remained on the endangered peninsula. Power outages cut electricity to 92% of the population and led to the deaths of 15 people throughout the nine-day disaster.
Lawrence knew the survivors were without clean water, so he purchased water filters from Waves for Water, a relief organization providing aid and drinking water to communities around the world. The plastic buckets could hold five gallons of clean water each and contained a filter system to prevent bacteria or cysts.
But there was more he wanted to do. He thought about creating a brand with which people could represent a specific cause through their lifestyle or hobbies. The brand, he thought, should inspire people to enjoy the outdoors, travel often and help others along the way.
With that on the mind, he just needed a name. He remembered a past return flight from Cabo when he spotted a building’s roof with painted letters reading “Smile.”
“That was the perfect name for what I wanted the brand to accomplish,” Lawrence said.
A smile is essential to life, he said, as are clean water and dental care.
To spread the word, Lawrence designed a nautical-inspired hat with a patch reading, “Smile.”
He put the signature wording on crew-neck tees and has since added the label to water bottles.
For every product sold, 5% of each sale helps Lawrence fund a “Smile Vi5ion” kit that he packages himself. The kit includes a water bottle, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Since the company’s inception, he and friends have helped distribute kits to Cabo San Lucas and Tijuana. Each month, he drives to downtown Los Angeles to hand the basic necessities to homeless people on the street.
The kits he gives out every month are mostly funded by Smile Life sales. Lawrence said all the money he has earned has been reinvested in inventory.
According to a 2013 study by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, at least 190,207 men, women and children face homelessness in Los Angeles over the course of a year. The annualized estimate is up 65,000 from the 2011 estimate of 124,934 people.
It’s his mission, Lawrence said, to make others less fortunate happy.
“This is my passion,” he said.
Lawrence, who has worked as a full-time manager at Oak Grill in Newport Beach since November, said when he’s not helping run a restaurant, he’s focusing on growing his brand by spreading the word on Instagram and by developing a new product release of hats and shirts in April.
His friends are not surprised by his giving back.
“Kyle’s endeavor is up his alley for social responsibility,” said Kohlman Verheyen, who has known Lawrence since they were Boy Scouts. “He’s always had a big heart for the community.”
To spread the cause, Lawrence said that in April or May, he will launch a Kickstarter campaign with director Jeremy Heslup of Valkyr Productions. The duo filmed and edited a video to share the story of The Smile Life and its potential impact on people in need.
He hopes to raise $10,000 so he can reinvest the funds into new products. His next goal is to build a larger inventory for the company’s online page. While primarily selling merchandise on its own website, The Smile Life also has products for sale at women’s boutique The Shop in Laguna Beach.
Friends of Lawrence have helped spread the word by wearing a labeled hat or shirt when they have traveled to places from Brooklyn, New York, to the Patagonia region in Argentina and Chile.
Next week, Lawrence will be en route to Cabo San Lucas, his first return since his relief efforts last year. While there, he’ll hand out his simple kits of dental hygiene to anyone he finds in need of care.
Until then, he’ll release a "#whatmakesmesmile” photo contest campaign on The Smile Life’s Instagram page where people can post pictures of things that make them happy.
“You never hear someone say, ‘I give away too much,’” Lawrence said. “Giving back is one of the keys to happiness.”
The Smile Life
Founder: Kyle Lawrence
Founded: October 2014
[For the record, March 25, 11:35 a.m.: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that Kyle Lawrence gave water filters to Waves for Water, a relief organization. In fact, he purchased water filters from Waves for Water.]