Rising Up & Giving Back

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Meet four local families who found the good when faced with big challenges by giving back to the community and more.

It’s difficult to maintain a positive outlook following hardship. Ironically, though, many families who suffer from one of life’s curve balls find a way to give back to those who supported them during their time of need. Meet four families who did exactly that.

“There’s nothing she can’t do.”

— Dwan Bray (family pictured above)

Nadjah Bray, 12, and the oldest of five, discovered an interest in cooking when her sister was born with cerebral palsy. While her mom Dwan spent long days in the NICU, Nadjah would prepare meals for the family, including her twin brothers who have autism.

A fan of the TV show Chopped, Nadjah was excited to learn that there was a version just for kids, Chopped Jr. So she went to the show’s website and applied — informing her mom later with an off-hand remark about how the show’s producers in New York might call!

Dwan was only a little surprised when the show did call to set up a Skype interview. “There’s nothing she can’t do,” she says. “When she tells me something, I learned quickly that I better listen, take note and be ready!”

Nadjah was invited to compete on the show, and traveled to New York with her grandparents, who were there to watch her win the episode, as well as $10,000!

What does she plan to do with all that money? Use it to help kids like her. As a child with special needs siblings, Nadjah knows that there are plenty of kids who need a place to go when things get frustrating at home. So she and her mom are working on building a website for kids that will do exactly that — provide a safe place where kids can chat with others who “get it.”

“I always feel better finding another mom who understands the way I feel,” says Dwan.

“I want to help kids, but I want them to help me, too,” adds Nadjah, describing the site, which is still in development, as a place where kids can share good days and bad days. “I like giving back and that’s one of the ways I can help.”

Photo above: The Bray family: parents Dwan and Aaron with baby Ny’Leah Angel, Nadjah, twins Aarion and Aubrey, and Akerah.

“This is definitely a recovery story.”

Highlander Family

Lori Highlander, Kilee Brookbank and her brother Cameron.

— Lori Highlander

Kilee Brookbank is a typical college freshman — attending class, making friends, figuring out what she wants to do in life. But what’s not typical is that Kilee has already published her own book and started a charitable foundation.

Many may remember Kilee’s story — in November 2014, Kilee suffered second and third degree burns on 45 percent of her body in a house explosion caused by a gas leak. After multiple surgeries and skin grafts, she endured the painful process of healing, including re-learning everyday tasks like tying shoe laces.

Kilee might not have survived the explosion, but she and her mother, Lori Highlander, agree that two important factors were in their favor: family, and the good fortune of living only an hour away from the Shriners Hospital for Children Cincinnati.

“We wouldn’t have made it without them, we were lucky to be so close,” says Lori. Kilee remembers that many of the children she met during her stay had to travel from across the country, even from around the world. “I could see how that affected them, being in an unfamiliar place.”

Inspired by their experience and the work done at Shriners, (and as a way to work through the emotional toll of recovery), Kilee and Lori contributed to a book that detailed their journey from each of their perspectives. Titled Beautiful Scars, a portion of the book’s proceeds benefits Shriners   Cincinnati.

In addition, Kilee and her family also founded the Kilee Gives Back Foundation. In 2015, the Foundation hosted a charity golf outing that raised approximately $40,000, and this year, that same outing raised $55,000. More fundraising activities are in the works.

Learn more about Kilee and her mom, the book Beautiful Scars and the Kilee Gives Back Foundation at kicamprojects.com and kileegivesback.org.

“We want people to leave better than when they arrived.”

— Danielle Jones

Jones Family

Chris Jones, Sr., Danielle Jones, and Christopher Louis Jones, Jr., aka “Junior.”

Chris and Danielle Jones learned they were expecting their first child two years ago. But things didn’t go as the couple hoped, and after 10 days of life, the Jones’ made the heartbreaking decision to turn off baby Christopher, Jr.’s (“Junior”) ventilator.

Going home that night, Danielle remembers feeling all alone. She and Chris looked for ways to grieve as well as give back, including donating Junior’s organs for research and donating breast milk. They met with a bereavement counselor, and reached out to other parents who experienced similar losses. But Danielle admits that she just couldn’t find what she was looking for. At one point, she mentioned to a friend the idea of starting her own support group. “Let’s do it!” was the reply.

With Chris’ support, Danielle organized the Angel Baby Network’s first gathering in December 2015. Aiming to meet six times a year, the Network is designed not only to connect families with each other, but also to link parents to professional resources, like doctors and counselors.

“I wanted our support group to be different,” says Danielle. “Our set-up includes an ice breaker, raffle items … it’s a light-hearted gathering.” She explains that while certainly parents may express their frustration and sadness, she wants them to also “feel joyful by the time they leave.”

The Jones’, who are currently working on a book about their experiences titled As Sure As Tomorrow: One Couple’s Journey Through Loss and Love, are hoping to grow Angel Baby Network into a national organization. Having already fielded requests about other state chapters, Danielle is working on establishing the Network as a 501(c)(3).

“When you feel alone, it’s like adding insult to injury,” says Danielle. “We’re providing families with an outlet to feel normal, to know they’re not alone as they work through this.”

Angel Baby Network is open to all parents who have lost a child, according to Danielle. Interested families can learn more at angelbabynetwork.org.

“It’s OK to ask how we’re doing.”

— Tiffany Messer

Messer Family

The Messer Family taking their babies home from the hospital at 3.5 months old — Benjamin was coming home for the first time.

Tiffany and Keith Messer’s pregnancy was not an easy one. On top of carrying twins, the couple learned one of the babies suffered from congenital heart disease. In spite of many complications along the way, twins Benjamin and Lucas (see the cover of this issue) were born in June 2014 — six weeks early. Both were placed in the NICU, but Benjamin was later taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), where he underwent two open-heart surgeries in the first month of his life. Those two surgeries turned out to be the first of many over the next year — a tough journey that earned Benjamin the nickname “SuperBen.” Unfortunately, shortly after the twins’ first birthday, the Messer family had to say good-bye to Benjamin.

Throughout that arduous time, the Messers found comfort in their family, friends and even co-workers, who all rallied to support them, whether they helped clean or provided meals, or were just a strong shoulder to lean on. Just before SuperBen’s fourth surgery, Tiffany’s fellow teachers at Sharpsburg Elementary in Norwood wanted to show their support. One of them came up with the phrase BenStrong, and T-shirts were quickly designed. The shirts were initially meant for the staff, but then they were offered to the families of Tiffany’s students. Soon, others purchased them and posted pictures on social media of themselves proudly wearing the shirts with the hashtag #BenStrong.

“We didn’t expect it to blow up,” says Tiffany, adding that friends are even traveling with their BenStrong shirts and sharing pics from around the world — which the Messers say means more than financial contributions.

“The monetary thing is nice,” says Keith, “but we got through what we got through because of our friends and family.” He adds that it’s important to keep the support coming, while Tiffany doesn’t want people to feel they have to shy away from talking about SuperBen. “It’s OK to ask how we’re doing,” she says. “Please do! I want to feel comfortable talking about Ben, even years from now.”

Funds raised from the T-shirt sales initially helped support the Messer family, but the couple has since used the funds to donate back to the Heart Institute at CCHMC. They have also organized a toy drive and a Zumba-thon to purchase toys, gift cards and copies of the book Patch: The Braveheart Lion for the Heart Institute’s patients and families. This year, the Messers will host another toy drive on Saturday, Dec. 3 — find the details at their Facebook Page, The Many Adventures of Ben Strong.

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