“Her smiling got us through every single minute of it. So when the organization kind of came about and there was this whole, what would you call it, there was not a doubt in my mind that it had to be Love Smiles,” said Jenna Brown.
One mom’s difficult journey lead her to starting a non-profit to help other families who are going through that same experience. After her daughter was treated from neuroblastoma, Brown founded Love Smiles.
When her daughter Sydney was about 2 ½ months old, Brown noticed a lump on the side of her neck. After blood work and multiple tests, results were coming back normal. Doctors then told Brown it was undeveloped tissue “which they said was not uncommon in babies, it can happen. But just for Sydney it was in the unfortunate spot of being more her carotid artery,” said Brown. “So they wanted to remove it before it caused any possible complications.”
After the surgery the doctor came in and “he sat me down and goes, the tumor was malignant. The oncologist will be in in a little bit to talk to you about it. And I looked at him, and you forget what malignant means. Nothing makes sense,” said Brown. “I called my parents and I just lost it. And I said ‘I think they just told me Sydney has cancer.'”
At four months old, Sydney was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. It wasn’t detected before the surgery because the doctors hadn’t done a urine test. The surgery was successful and doctors were able to remove the entire tumor. But the four-month-old still needed chemotherapy. No matter what she was going through, Sydney always had a smile on her face.
“Even the day after her surgery, they would all tease me at the hospital because she was in the PICU [pediatric intensive care unit], doctors would make rounds. They started rounds at 6 a.m.,” said Brown. “[And one day] I said, ‘you know don’t feel pressured to come here first, you can go see other people, we’ll sleep a little bit.’ And [the doctors] said, ‘but she’s always so smiley and it’s the best way to start our day.’ The day after she’s had this horrible surgery, she’s smiling.”
Drawing from her daughter’s positive energy, and advice she received that “you’re allowed to feel anything you want, just don’t sit in it,” Brown asked herself “what can I do?” The answer to that for the reading teacher was starting her non-profit, Love Smiles. The pediatric cancer foundation partners with children’s authors and illustrators to share their stories and activities with patients and their families. The authors record videos of them reading their stories. The illustrators will make how-to videos for kids and their families to follow along.
The Love Smiles website and app were launched June 23, 2021, a year after Sydney’s diagnosis. While the website and app are free to access, the videos with the authors and illustrators require a passcode families receive from their hospital. Some hospitals the foundation has partnered with include Loyola Medicine, University of Illinois Hospital, and an Edward Hospital outpatient pediatric cancer clinic.
The goal of the organization is to provide moments of peace to those diagnosed and their families. “When you’re reading a book, you don’t think about any of that,” said Brown. “I think about my baby and reading with her and enjoying the story and snuggling up and just being us.”
As of June 2021 Sydney, now 23 months old, is in remission. And part of Love Smiles’ future plans is to start providing comfort kits at their partnering hospitals. The organization currently has an Amazon Wishlist of books that can be purchased and donated to families.
Naperville News 17’s Aysha Ashley Househ reports.