Sometimes, the simplest, heartfelt ideas can make all of the difference in the world.
Sarah LoCurto, now a 16-year-old Niagara-Wheatfield High School junior, was trying to find a creative solution to a vexing problem last Spring. Her mother, Kim LoCurto, had just returned from visiting her friend at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Kim had taken her friend, Charlene “Char” Weishaupt, a bouquet of flowers. But she learned some hospital patients are not permitted to have flowers or plants because they pose health risks to their compromised immune systems.
Sarah started thinking about alternatives that evening and by the next day, she and her mother were sitting at their kitchen table, working on prototypes for paper flowers.
“Sarah is the one doing this, I only help when I can,” said Kim. “Char passed away last March, just days later, and never received these paper flowers. I wish she had.”
At the time, Kim explained, “I thought maybe Sarah just wanted to make one bouquet of paper flowers and we’d drop them off at the hospital, but I had no idea it would become a project. She’s amazing and I’m so proud of her.”
Kim said Sarah worked on the flowers for many months. Sarah named the project “Because Char Smiled” and they made their first delivery of 300 paper flowers to Roswell Park last October. In the past year, it has grown to include other volunteers willing to spend some time creating the colorful paper blossoms for Roswell, as well.
“Our second delivery was 200 to 300 flowers,” said Sarah. “We probably have another 300 made right now, with another month to go before we make our next delivery to Roswell’s Resource Center. By that time, we will have made over 1,000 total, because more groups have been kind enough to help us out.
“My Mom and I still make them in our free time, but I also give tutorials to groups who ask, like Girl Scouts and school clubs,” she said.
“Since we started this, I’ve given 15 tutorials in nine different towns and cities, as far away as West Seneca,” she added. “It’s amazing to me...I have been blown away by how many people have been getting in touch with us and who want to help. It’s very fulfilling. We just wanted to spread kindness and hope to these people (in the hospital) and now so many others want to help us and that’s been rewarding in its own right.”
Kim noted that while she and Sarah donate most of the materials, others have offered to help supply the basics, too, including nurses from a Buffalo pediatric office and a stranger in Hamburg with lots of paper and a wish to contribute.
“I hope this continues to grow,” said Kim. “I love the fact that the community is getting involved and wants to help. It gives us such a sense of satisfaction and I’m happy it’s doing what it was meant to do and affecting so many people. It’s beautiful.”
And, this isn’t the only way Sarah supports Roswell. She also has organized a “Bald for Bucks” fundraiser at her high school through her role as vice president of the National Honor Society and participates in “Y”roswell<cq>, which encourages youth to learn more about the disease and contribute to fundraising and other supportive efforts. She also has participated in the virtual effort for Ride for Roswell, raising funds for the cancer center.
In addition, Sarah interned last summer at the Hauptman Woodward Medical Research Institute located within the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and will be returning again this summer.
“She is passionate about giving back and helping others,” her mother noted, adding that she’s also a junior volunteer at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston. She completed around 100 volunteer hours at the hospital last year, something she hopes to repeat this year.
Sarah also is on the school track team; is vice president of the concert choir; participates in the school musical each year; and has taken dance through the Darlene Ceglia’s Dance Project in Amherst since she was 3. Her goal is to study neuroscience in college, with her sights set on a doctorate.
Earlier this week, Sarah earned the 2018 Youth Leader Award from Leadership Niagara at a luncheon held at the Niagara Conference Center. She is a recent graduate of Leadership Niagara’s LYNC (Leadership for Youth of Niagara County) program, an 8-month series of leadership development sessions.
Sarah recently took some time from her busy schedule to discuss her involvement in “Because Char Smiled.”
Q: How did you come up with the idea of paper flowers? Had you made them before?
A: When my Mom came home from the hospital that night, she was really upset. I heard the frustration in her voice and thought, ‘There must be something we can do to help these people.’ The idea just came to me, ‘What if we make the flowers out of paper?’
I told my Mom about it that night and by the next day, we were sitting at the table for four hours trying different ways to make the flowers out of paper. I had done origami when I was a kid but not like what we’re doing with these flowers. But we do use origami paper and scrapbook paper to make these flowers.
We use the same process for each flower, but make some with round tips, some with pointed petals, some are a mix of those two, some have scalloped edges -- it all depends on how we want to express ourselves creatively at the time.
It takes us about 20 to 30 minutes to make a flower, attach it to the stem, put it in tissue paper and wrap it with a bow.
Q: What does the tag read on each one?
A: ‘Because Char Smiled’ ‘When words fail, flowers speak. We’re creating symbols of hope and healing for the patients at Roswell Park. We encourage you to share our message.’
And then we add our saying, ‘Angels help our garden grow.’
Q: Whom else has inspired you to volunteer on behalf of Roswell?
A: My grandfather, Thomas LoCurto Sr., passed away when I was eight from lung cancer, because, unfortunately, it was too late for treatment for him. He meant a lot to me and he’s the reason I’m so passionate about this.
And, unfortunately, we lost our assistant principal at Niagara-Wheatfield, James Campbell, to cancer last summer.
So many people have been affected by this disease -- young and old. It’s an insidious disease and I’m going to do everything in my power to help.
Editor’s note: To learn more about this program, contact Sarah at: BecauseCharSmiled@gmail.com. She can also be followed on Facebook.