Chesapeake Charities, a community foundation located in Stevensville, is partnering with Attraction magazine to share the stories of individuals in our community who demonstrate the power of kindness. We encourage you to look for the good in others.
If you have ever parented a child, you remember the first time you held them in your arms and the boundless love you felt for that tiny human being. It is a special bond that knows no limits. But the power of that devotion is never more evident than with parents whose children face serious medical or life challenges.
Lauren Leonard was 21 years old when she gave birth to her first child. Lauren’s husband, Derrick, had been not-so-secretly praying for a son, and when their beautiful baby boy was born, it seemed all their dreams had come true – a happy marriage, a new home, and a child with whom they could share their love.
But life’s journey held a few twists and turns for the Leonards and, just eight weeks later, their world flipped upside down. Darren had developed a lazy eye and seemed to be struggling to thrive. The doctors were unsure of the cause and ordered a battery of tests to find the answer. After a dreadful week of waiting for the results, little Darren was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer that had manifested as a tumor putting pressure on his tiny skull.
“Your child has cancer” are words no parent should ever hear. The swing from elation to terror was heart-stopping. Things the Leonards never imagined they would need to know became a priority. What is the lifespan of a child who is diagnosed with cancer this young? Can our son be saved? Will he lead a normal life if he survives the surgery?
Through the dark and terrifying weeks that followed and the chaos and utter confusion that ensued, remarkable things slowly began to happen. Family and friends stepped in to shore up Lauren and Derrick. Neighbors cooked meals, prayer chains formed, and an entire community kept watch over the Leonards.
What often breaks a family apart, drew Lauren and Derrick together. Strengthened by faith and surrounded by loved ones, they weathered the storms with Darren beside them and found a way to brighten the path for others.
While walking the halls of the hospital, hustling from one appointment to the next, Lauren began to notice the power of a smile to brighten the darkest moments. First it was a little girl glancing up for a quick grin before she raced down the hall. Then it was a knowing stranger who beamed a cheerful smile at Darren as the elevator doors closed. Lauren recognized that attitude was a huge part of the battle against cancer – not only for the children, but for their families as well.
Determined to find a way to lighten her mood, Lauren noticed that children in the hospital’s cancer ward, the ones being treated and their siblings, had very little to distract them from the monotony. She came up with the idea for “Darren’s Joy Bags,” which were bags filled with fun toys and activities to keep the children busy during treatments and inpatient stays. Pretty soon Lauren and her family couldn’t keep up with the demand, so she reached out to anyone willing to help her on Facebook. It never failed that within 24 hours, Lauren would reach and then exceed her goal. This continued year after year, cancer recurrence after painful cancer recurrence.
Lauren saw that people desperately wanted to help those in need, but few knew how to go about doing it. Those who participated shared their excitement at being able to have a direct impact on making a child smile. The Leonards witnessed those smiles when they delivered joy bags to area hospitals – particularly Darren, who had become the CSM, Chief Smile Maker. Through treatments, hospital stays, illness, surgeries, pokes, and everything else that comes with cancer treatment, bringing a smile to the face of another child brightened Darren’s darkest days.
Thirteen years later, Lauren runs Happy Crates, a growing business in Church Hill that provides a clever assortment of toys, games, and themed gift items for birthdays and special occasions. Through a nonprofit fund called Happy Crates Gives! established with Chesapeake Charities, donors are able to send Happy Crates to children fighting cancer across the United States. By courageously choosing kindness over fear and sadness, Lauren and her family make the world a little better for us all.
If you know someone who could use a smile, consider purchasing a gift from Happy Crates, as a portion of all sales goes toward the company’s mission: to put SMILES on the faces of children fighting cancer all over the United States. Visit www.sendhappycrates.com. Donations to Happy Crates Gives! charitable fund at Chesapeake Charities is possible at chesapeakecharities.org/fund/happy-crates-gives.