A clear and caring path
by David LaBelle
We hear a lot of grumbling about how the current “Me” generation cares only about self, “selfies,” texting and, well, self. And admittedly as someone who has taught college students for 20 years, sometimes it feels like too many students today lack curiosity and suffer from a disease called apathy.
But last semester, after learning about two of my students on similar missions to bring comfort to young people with cancer, I was reminded how caring and enterprising some of today’s college students can be. Ironically, the two women from different photo classes don’t know each other, though they are immersed in similar causes.
Let me introduce you first to Sarah Walsh.
Walsh was an 18-year-old college freshman when she met four-year-old Kadie Stonebreaker at a Taylor Swift concert in Cleveland in 2011. Her life changed immediately.
Walsh said she was waiting in the back of the arena, along with 30 or 40 other fans hoping Swift would come out that way, when a little girl approached and said her name was Grace. “She asked if I would play with her,” Walsh remembers.
“I was playing with her when she said, I needed to meet her sister. So she introduced me to Kadie, who had cancer.“
That was in July. One month later Kadie Stonebreaker died.
“I only knew her about a month or so but became really close with her and her family,” Walsh said. “I even went and stayed with the family in Pennsylvania.”
Walsh smiles, her eyes beginning to fill. “I was really touched by Kadie. She wouldn’t let me be sad and always said to put on a happy face.”
Within just a few weeks, the Kent State freshman decided to put her caring into action. To honor Kadie, she started Happy Faces and several other fund-raising campaigns to help children with cancer. Soon, Happy Faces gave birth to another project called #KadieKindness, designed to encourage people to perform random acts of kindness.
Today, the graduating senior plans to make helping kids with cancer a life-long pursuit. But she in not alone on her mission, she has a helper, a sidekick named Kate.
Walsh, who has only one sibling, an older stepsister, has been a “big sister” to Kate since she was five.
“She’s my little buddy,” insists Walsh.
“Kate helps me with everything. Happy Faces is our special thing. She comes up with ideas even though she is only 12.” Together, the pair brought carloads of gifts to families in Columbus, Akron and Cleveland last Christmas.
When Walsh began four years ago, she sent care packages all over the country. But that soon became “too overwhelming and felt too impersonal,” she said.
The full-time student and president of her sorority realized she had to limit her reach and narrow her focus to kids in Ohio and those on the Pennsylvania border. “I want to meet with the kids and play with them. Less care packages and more fun experiences with the kids – this is a way to promote family bonding and help the kids forget that they are sick for a little while,” she assures.
Walsh said she figures she has helped about 60 kids and their families, all children who have been diagnosed with cancer.
They do things for their siblings as well. “Sometimes the siblings will get pushed aside and have a harder journey than the child with cancer,” Walsh observes. “I try to make sure the siblings are involved in everything.”
The focused senior has it mapped out. “I will have grant proposals and do fund raising. At first I will have to have another job to support myself on top of this but, in time I hope to carve out a salary as well.”
Why does she do this? Why spend countless hours organizing events, connecting on social media, gathering and delivering presents?
“This just happened. I just met this little girl, and once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. I couldn’t unlearn about all of these horrible things she had been through, and how the government provides less than 4 percent of funding towards childhood cancer.
Walsh is clear about her mission and resolve to dedicate her life to helping.
“If I were diagnosed with cancer, I would rather the funds be going towards a little kid than me because they haven’t got to experience anything that I have. I think that it’s really sad that not a lot of attention is brought to childhood cancer so I wanted to bring some sort of awareness to it and help the families that are going through it.”
“I have always wanted to help people; I have always organized stuff. Even when I was a little kid I did bake sales for a person whose house just burnt down,” Walsh remembers.
“And I have always loved kids. Always. Always. Always. I think I was born to do something with children; I just think that is what my purpose in life is.”
I meet few people, let alone students, whose eyes see such a clear mission. It is almost intimidating.
And once again, I am reminded of how much I have to learn from those I am blessed to teach.
For more about Sarah Walsh’s mission please check out her Happy Faces Foundation facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/putonyourhappyface/?fref=ts