PORTLAND, Ore. — What do children with leukemia, trees in deforested regions of the world, and kids in the remote rural communities of Nepal and Kathmandu have in common?
They all have very young benefactors who eat, breathe and sleep playing cards — and who care deeply about making the world a better place.
These dudes who champion such a wide range of causes are barely out of their teens or 20s, and many of them look like they’ve stepped out of an ad for skateboarding gear. Yet they spend hours on YouTube learning about cardistry, which is the art of making playing cards dance and somersault in the air.
It was breathtaking recently to see 400 or so of these young men looking like their hearts were in their throats as they watched a short film starring their cardistry heroes, Portland native Sean Oulashin and James Milaras, the Australian founder of the playing card design shop Joker and the Thief.
Milaras and Oulashin’s documentary “Cardistry Was Here” is a 20-minute pitch for helping the vulnerable women and children of Nepal through educational programs, community development projects and, yes, teaching the kiddies how to make 52 playing cards jump, flip and twirl.
“A fellow entrepreneur asked me to think about what I could do for the community, and the next thing I know, I’m connected to someone who knew about Friends of Himalayan Children, which helps kids whose lives are affected by the gambling problem in Nepal,” Milaras told me. “It seemed like an amazing opportunity to change the negative perception of playing cards in that community and help combat multigenerational gambling addiction by giving the kids something creative and fun to do with playing cards.”
We spoke at the end of his presentation here at Cardistry-Con, a three-day gathering of playing card prestidigitators convened by Art of Play, the online curiosity shop, which is itself committed to sustainable printing practices and donates 1% of its income to planting trees in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
“Cardistry Was Here” showed Milaras and Oulashin delighting children with their card acrobatics and teaching them how to manipulate cards. It had such a visceral effect on the crowd that, immediately after the show ended, the pair raised almost double the amount of money they asked for to help fund more playing card decks, video tutorials, and underwriting for Friends of Himalayan Children’s myriad education efforts.
“It was amazing, truly inspiring to see the kids’ happiness and their ability to almost instantly establish a small community of their own within our larger cardistry community — linking us all together,” Oulashin told me.
The idea of giving children a community in which to grow also motivated Cameron Toner and Nate Lex, the co-owners of the Indiana-based Organic Playing Cards Company. They decided to partner with the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, an organization that helps kids and their families fight childhood cancers.
Toner and Lex explained to the Cardistry-Con crowd that their first, banana-themed card deck “Peelers” inadvertently helped raise awareness of the extinction of the Cavendish banana.
“Ever since then, we were looking to up that to the next level,” Toner told me. “We want to spark the feeling of lifting each other up and also bringing others in to our cardistry community, and then having that community have a greater impact on the world.”
Lex continued, “We have the fruit theme, and when we got to lemonade and lemons, we knew we wanted to partner with Alex’s Lemonade Stand [Foundation]. ... it seemed like a good partnership because these are kids who don’t have a lot of ability to go out, meet new people or be physical. And we can raise money, we can go visit these kids, see them in person and actually teach them cardistry.”
Though Los Angeles native Ilia Dickey doesn’t know how to handle a deck of playing cards, her son has been card-obsessed since fourth grade. She’s starting a nonprofit dedicated to promoting awareness of social causes around the world through cardistry.
“It was cardistry that boosted my son’s confidence and his ability to do better in school,” Dickey told me during a break in the cardistry presentations. “And I’m super excited about how conscious this group is — there’s a lot of kindness, people are trying to share information. It’s almost all about the greater good, that sense of community and belonging.”
Hot take, nonprofit organizations: If you want young people to buy into your charity’s mission, pair it with something they’re passionate about. The graceful art of cardistry could be your inroad to a lifelong donor for any cause that pairs well with playing cards.
Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.