Eighteen-year-old Lauren Browning recently became a Kansas honoree in the Prudential Spirit of the Community Awards, but you might say that it’s an honor nine years in the making. The award recognizes young people for community service at the state, local and national levels.
When she was 9, Browning, a senior at Blue Valley Southwest High School, founded a group called Faces of Hope. She and other volunteers have been going out into the community and painting faces to raise money for a variety of causes. The one nearest and dearest to Lauren — and the reason she started the group — was childhood cancer.
In 2005, her friend, 3-year-old Braden Hofen, developed neuroblastoma cancer. Browning watched all the adults around her organizing events and doing other things to help, and she wanted to do something too.
“I was 9, and there’s not much you can do when you’re 9. There’s not a lot of big ways you can get involved,” Browning said. “I was a crafty kid, and I started painting faces at events. It was mostly at childhood cancer events, because those were the events we were going to.”
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Braden’s family took comfort from Browning’s efforts.
“She always makes her first priority things that are for other people, like Faces of Hope. I think that’s a really remarkable trait for anyone, let alone a teen,” said Deliece Hofen, Braden’s mom and president of Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer. “(At) every single solitary event that had to do with childhood cancer, she was there, working with the kids, smiling and laughing. You could tell she was bringing happiness to the people.”
After that initial start, Faces of Hope took off. Browning and her volunteers paint faces for free at public events that “better the community” and collect tips to donate to charity. They also paint at private events in exchange for a donation to a charity.
“I think art in itself is the most impactful way to connect with people. I’m a terrible painter on paper, so it’s funny that painting faces has proven to be something that works well for me,” Browning said.
By the time she got to seventh grade, Browning applied to the IRS for a nonprofit 501(c)(3) designation for Faces of Hope. After years of paperwork, she said it’s about to become official in the next month or so.
Faces of Hope maintains a group of about 10 painters at any one time, and they’re often booked for multiple events on the same day.
“I’m always open to anyone who wants to come and paint with us. It’s a special personality type that thrives in these situations,” Browning said. “The actual painting itself is the least important thing we do. It’s the way in which we paint that’s important.”
Volunteers get training on how to interact with sick kids — talking with them, sterilizing equipment and more.
“It’s definitely a challenge, and I ask a lot of my painters. I’ve never seen a painter not rise to a challenge,” she said. “We start a conversation. We ask their name and a have a couple giggles, no matter how long the line is.”
One of the tougher things about Faces of Hope is that not every child Browning sees and interacts with will survive his or her illness.
When Browning was in the fifth grade, she was at a charity walk event on a cold spring morning, when a 3-year-old with a puffy pink jacket and a breathing machine came to get her face painted.
“I said, ‘What would you like to be?’ She said, ‘A butterfly, a pink butterfly.’ I didn’t think anything of it. She smiled and left. Later that week, I found out that was her last public outing. She passed away three days later,” Lauren said. “At first I was really upset, and then I felt really thankful I was able to cross paths with her, and I was able to bring her one of her last smiles.”
Until this year, Browning had never missed a Faces of Hope event, but as things got busy with college applications, she realized she had to set things up so the organization could continue after she graduated. She’ll hand off the reins to Emma Coad, 13, and Keaton Coad, 10, of Lenexa, but Browning plans to start a new chapter of Faces of Hope wherever she goes to college.
Beth Lipoff: firstname.lastname@example.org