Putting a “Happy Face” on cancer

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Kent State senior Sarah Walsh is the founder of the Happy Faces Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping to give kids with cancer—and their families—experiences that help to take their minds off of their illnesses. Friday, March 18, 2016.

Alex Delaney-Gesing

Kent State senior Sarah Walsh met the Stonebraker family at a Taylor Swift concert in Cleveland, on the last day of July 2011. But more importantly, she met 4-year-old Kadie Stonebraker. Kadie wanted nothing more than to meet the Grammy-winning singer.

A little girl with a big dream, Kadie—Walsh later found out—had neuroblastoma cancer. Neuroblastoma, often found in the small glands on top of the kidneys, commonly affects children ages 5 and younger.

Though Kadie didn’t get the chance to meet the singer that night, she made a new friend in Walsh.

After their initial meeting, Walsh grew close with the family in a short amount of time.  “(Walsh) connected with my girls and I that day,” said Kadie’s mother, Sarah Stonebraker. “I remember how happy and attentive she was with my girls; she got down on their level and spent so much time with them … making them laugh and bringing them so much joy.”

Within days following the concert, Kadie received a surprise phone call and gift basket from Swift herself.

Kadie died on Aug. 13, just two weeks after the concert.

Though Walsh only knew the little girl for a few weeks, their friendship inspired her to make a difference in the lives of cancer-stricken children.

“I just got invested in Kadie and her story and wanted to do something to help other kids with cancer—once you learn something you can’t unlearn it,” Walsh said. “So I learned about childhood cancer and all that comes with it, and I couldn’t not do anything about it.”

A month following Kadie’s death, Walsh started up a cancer-support organization for children diagnosed with the illness. She called it “Put On a Happy Face,” in honor of Kadie.

“Kadie had this motto where she always wanted everyone around her to put on their happy faces because that’s just the kind of kid she was,” Walsh said. “I thought that was so beautiful; to be going through so much and so many horrible things, but just to want to see the people around you smiling.”

Having established the organization out of her parents’ Avon Lake home, Walsh initially focused on putting together personalized care packages for diagnosed children residing in local hospitals or receiving outpatient chemotherapy.

After launching a Facebook page that accumulated over 7,000 ‘likes,’ Walsh was able to secure funding and donations. Over time these donations enabled her to offer children and their families “experiences” in addition to toys and other gifts for them to enjoy.

“A lot of people like to donate tangible items, like tickets to somewhere for the kids to go,” Walsh said. “Other people will just literally say ‘take the money and do what you want with it’; it really depends on the person and their preferences.”

From excursions to restaurants, water parks and annual holiday-themed parties, Happy Faces provides cancer-diagnosed children and their families with joy-filled memories to share.

“One thing we really try to do is connect families with each other because it’s such an isolating thing; to be told your child has cancer,” Walsh said. “It doesn’t just affect the child, it affects the entire family.”

While Walsh’s involvement with Happy Faces is outside of her role as a Kent State student, the two have overlapped in the past.

Walsh was previously the president of Kent State’s chapter of Tri Sigma. The sorority created a mission focusing its philanthropic goals centered on the theme of ”Sigma Serves Children.”

In support of their purpose and aligned with Walsh’s organization, the sorority held a fundraiser last fall called Sweets With Sigma, where one of the children Walsh had grown close to through Happy Faces was honored.

After learning of Walsh’s organization, two of Walsh’s (current and past) sorority sisters — senior public relations major Paige Beach and Kent State graduate Caitlin Siegfried — have contributed to building up Happy Faces’ social media presence.

Beach has run the foundation’s Facebook page since last November. Happy Faces, she said, is unique because of Walsh’s goal to “help children with cancer be distracted from all the negative in their life with acts of kindness and ‘happy faces.’”

“She is constantly thinking of ways to improve her organization and trying to help out every family possible,” Beach said.

Though Siegfried, a graphic designer, doesn’t quite remember when and how she got involved with the foundation, she does remember the first time she truly understood what it is Happy Faces does for sick children.

Having helped Walsh deliver gifts on behalf of their sorority to the Ronald McDonald House — temporary housing for families with loved ones staying at the Akron Children’s Hospital — she had the opportunity to meet one of the recipients, a little girl named Ava who had cancer.

“After meeting Ava, it was easy to see why (Walsh) started Happy Faces; she does it for the kids,” Siegfried said. “They spend most of their time in the hospital for treatment and they don’t get to enjoy the little things.”

“Taking the extra step to help out not only the children, but their families as well, is what sets Walsh and Happy Faces apart from other organizations,” Siegfried said.

“There is so much more to these kids than their cancer and (Walsh) sees that,” she said. “She opened me up to that as well.”

Helping Walsh organize fundraising projects and expeditions is 12-year-old Kate Radca, her “right-hand man” as Walsh calls her.

“She thinks she’s going to inherit this one day. She’s just so funny,” Walsh said. “I’ve been babysitting her since she was 5 years old and she’s just always coming up with ideas and comes with me to visit families.”

Walsh said Happy Faces hopes to soon receive its 501(c)3 license through the state of Ohio, which will grant it an official nonprofit status.

A human development and family studies major, Walsh intends to focus on expanding the organization after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in May.

“Realistically, I’m going to have to get another job and work at this on the side, but one day I would like to turn it into a full-time thing,” she said. “It’s something that I want to do for my entire life.”

The dedication Walsh has to Happy Faces and the personal touch she puts to it is what makes the organization unique, she said.

“Walsh is able to bring (children) happiness, a little bit of their childhood back,” Kadie’s mom said. “(She’s) able to bring them joy and hope for a future. And to me that can be more powerful than modern medicine.”

Ultimately, though, the devotion Walsh has for the organization leads back to why she began it in the first place: Kadie.

“It’s her story; that’s what I’ve been trying to tell, just by raising awareness for her and any kid with cancer,” Walsh said. “I didn’t just wake up one day and say ‘Oh, I’m going to do this:’ I had something that pushed me to do it. That’s what makes it special.”

Alex Delaney-Gesing is a general assignment reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected]