The Mary jo Brown Foundation

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2018 Spreading Smiles Award Winner - Hannah Finn

Hannah Finn is 16 years old and an 11th grade student at Andover High School.

When Hannah entered high school, she wanted to start challenging herself in many different ways. One way was to get involved in community service. She was aware of the Lazarus House in Lawrence and understood that the children who live there probably get very little for their birthday, if anything at all.

Having always felt special on her own birthday each year with a cake and presents, Hannah wanted those children to experience that same joy she did, and still does. Hannah decided to start a non-profit organization called the One Wish Project https://www.onewishproject.us/ to make children feel special on their birthdays regardless of their current circumstances.

She first partnered with the Lazarus House and used most of her babysitting money to purchase pans, ingredients to bake cakes, balloons, and presents.

Hannah used the benefit of social media to spread the word about her new organization. Several local newspapers published articles about what Hannah was accomplishing and donations from the local communities starting streaming in, which allowed Hannah to reach her next goal of partnering with a second shelter, La Casa Nueva Vida in Lawrence.

Hannah is currently servicing approximately 50 children but wants to continue reaching as many children as she can. She recently met with Merrimack Valley Foster Kids and is eager to celebrate the birthdays of these children who are living in group homes.

Hannah's work with One Wish Project is an example of doing something wonderful and unselfish. For example, due to the Lazarus House's privacy policies, Hannah is unable to meet the birthday children for whom she bakes and delivers presents. She makes the delivery to the shelter before the children arrive back in the late afternoons. Their paths never cross. This has always been fine with Hannah just knowing that the birthday child has cake and presents waiting for him/her with which to celebrate.

Marcy Furse, the volunteer coordinator at Lazarus House said that Hannah really stood out because she wanted to make it personal and was not just checking a box to complete volunteer hours.  Hannah used her passion for baking to fulfill a need, served purposely, and took it to a whole other level.  Because of the way Hannah’s One Wish Project is set up, the parent has the distinct respect and dignity to present their child with these gifts.

La Casa Nueva Vida's policies are more relaxed and Hannah is not only able to meet the children, but interact with them as well. To see Hannah with these children is truly special. Even more so, is to see the children's faces when Hannah arrives at their shelter. You see excitement on their faces whether it's their birthday or not.

Hannah was nominated by her Mom, Claudia.  In Claudia’s words, “to truly sum up why I feel Hannah is so deserving of this award and honoring the legacy of an incredible woman, Mary Jo Brown, I have to quote one of my favorite poets, Maya Angelou: "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel". These children may never remember Hannah, or what presents they received, or even what the cake looked like that she made for them, but I believe they will always remember how Hannah made them feel on their special day and will carry that feeling with them long after they leave the shelters.”

2017 Spreading Smiles Award Winner - Kailey Moras

As a seven year old, Kailey brought up to her parents she would like to help kids in need. Her parents did not think too much of her initial request, but Kailey persisted until she was allowed to request that her friends bring items to be donated to Cradles to Crayons in place of gifts at her eighth birthday party. The Facebook page, “Kailey’s Fantabulous Footwear” was then born.

Her first year, Kailey set a goal of collecting 350 pairs of shoes. She surpassed her goal by more than 23%, collecting over 430 pairs of shoes for kids in need in Massachusetts. After collecting shoes, Kailey broadened her focus the following year. She updated her Facebook page to “Kailey’s Fantabulous Fundraising”, and showed up at Cradles to Crayons with 214 size 2t and 3t outfits for toddlers, 219 onesies, 85 hats, 75 scarves, and 31 gloves. She also donated several toys, Radio Flyer wagons, and a brand new bicycle.

Now approaching her 11th birthday, Kailey has been able to bring in enough donations to impact more than 1,000 children across the state of Massachusetts in the past three years. Cradles to Crayons now contacts Kailey’s family to let them know what is needed in their Giving Factory. Kailey is a truly exceptional young woman, making a difference for kids all over Massachusetts since she was 7 years old. In August of 2017, Kailey’s Facebook page was encouraging followers to purchase on-sale jeans, school supplies, and more, all of Cradles to Crayons most needed items. Kailey’s great compassion and her love for helping others in need is outstanding, making her a role model for anyone looking to help the community.

2016 Spreading Smiles Award Winner - Isabella Fay

Like many 11-year olds, Bella has a good heart and great intentions. But what made Bella so worthy of this award is her decision to turn kindness into action.  Bella is extraordinary in the compassion and empathy she possesses, but even more so because of the objectivity of what she's done -- her giving, her decisions, and her relationships have all been independent actions, not something that her parents have led or pushed her to do.

For example, Bella was given an assignment to identify a current events article to summarize for school. It could have been virtually on any topic - pop culture, lighter news stories, or some quirky fun fact. Bella was drawn to an article about Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for children's rights, and especially, a leader in speaking in support of education for all girls and women. It was Bella's decision to watch the documentary about the ISIS attack on Malala - which for many kids would have been too heavy or scary. But from there, she decided she needed to help. Bella set up a fundraising website, sent emails to friends and family, and set a specific goal to raise $1,000 before her 11th birthday in June. She even requested donations in lieu of presents, and exceeded her goal!

This isn't the first time Bella has acted on her own accord to be kind and to give back. In 2012, when her Mom signed up for a Habitat for Humanity International trip to help rebuild Haiti, Bella set up a lemonade stand (and enlisted her younger brother to help!) which raised over $120, that she donated directly to the fundraising campaign. In 2015, she also asked for donations to Habitat for Humanity in lieu of gifts for her 10th birthday - this time to help fund her uncle's Habitat trip to Paraguay.

Beyond her charitable giving and fundraising efforts, Bella shows her kindness in so many other ways. Perhaps the best illustration is one that her parents didn't even know was occurring until halfway through the school year. Bella met a special-needs kindergartner in the Hoover School where she attended 5th grade, and befriended him. She would go down to his classroom during her lunch period - bypassing recess -- and spend time with him, helping this boy to feel seen and heard and cared for when he couldn't be at home.

Her decision to care for this student, and to do it behind-the-scenes, just shows that she is doing these things for the right reasons. Bella is setting such a wonderful example for her friends, for our community, and for her own family.

2015 Spreading Smiles Award Winner - Karissa Wheeler

Karissa was so horrified after being told at 4 years old that there are children who don't get toys for Christmas that she became determined to raise money so they could have presents under their tree. She first did research and found the Toys for Tots organization, then she wrote and mailed letters to every family member, neighbor and friend she knew asking for help to get these kids toys. That year she collected over 300 toys that brought to the Toys for Tots headquarters in 3 truckloads.

In the 9 years since then she has done this every year without fail, only to increase her collecting through more avenues each year. She has collected through the schools, parties, using her parent's work and whatever other means she can come up with.

The year the Toys for Tots warehouse was robbed, she was told they wouldn't have been able to fulfill all of their requests if it had not been for her support. She does this not for the recognition but because she truly believes that it's the right thing to do and that no child should not have toys for Christmas. Karissa has a very sweet heart and is always wanting to work at helping others in the world.

2014 Spreading Smiles Award Winner - Noelle Gregoire

Noelle raised money to buy toys to replenish the prize boxes in radiology and post op so other kids could get cool prizes after procedures just like she did during her course of treatment.

What is most impressive, is the way Noelle went about this. Noelle had a spinal condition that caused her to have to wear a rigid back brace.  Having limited mobility, she was very excited to be cleared for swimming, which she enjoyed doing up at her family camp in NH.  It was at this time that "Laps 4 Backs" was born.  Noelle swam 1.5 miles across a lake to raise money and awareness for what she was doing. She was incredibly successful and on Aug 20, 2014 dropped off more than $4,000 worth of toys to the Floating Hospital, where she was a patient. She was so excited to share these little joys and toys with other kids so they would all have a smile to look forward to when they were undergoing tests and treatment!