The Spread a Little Joy Foundation can trace its roots back to when Lara Stanze made a promise to her mother.
Well, three promises, technically.
Stanze’s mom, Joy Holmes Brown, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer in Nov. 2009, and doctors estimated Brown had less than a year to live.
Instead of dwelling on the bleak news, Stanze saw the possibility to provide her mom with some remarkable memories in her final months.
“We were coming out of the doctor’s office, and I said, ‘Give me three wishes, and I will make them happen for you,’” Stanze said.
In the next few months, Brown lived out each and every wish she requested by going on a cruise with her family, swimming with dolphins and even appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Stanze was thrilled to provide her mom with the experiences, but little did she know that her plan would bloom into an organization that has impacted dozens of families and hundreds of lives in the past few years.
And today, the organization is celebrating its inaugural Spread a Little Joy Day with the hope of raising awareness and support for its mission —fulfilling the dreams of adults facing life-threatening illnesses while also providing their families with resources and support.
It’s been three years since Brown lost her fight with cancer, but the Smithville non-profit organization continues to flourish and ensures that Brown’s legacy lives on through the organization that bears her name.
“Every time I would think about how much I missed her, I honestly just kept picturing those moments,” Stanze said. “That’s what was going on in my head, and I thought if we could do this for her in such a short amount of time, we can do it for other people.”
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When she first pitched the idea of starting up a non-profit, Stanze’s family was wary to say the least.
Sure, they had fulfilled Brown’s final wishes by going on the family cruise and forged some lasting memories in the process.
And making the trip to Chicago to attend the Oprah Winfrey Show during its final season was an amazing experience, one that came together incredibly quickly thanks to one of the show’s producers.
But in the process of making her mom’s dreams a reality, Stanze awakened a desire to make sure others life-threatening illnesses could realize their own dreams that wouldn’t be possible without outside support.
She also recognized that there was a need for such an organization in the Kansas City area, one that would serve a similar purpose of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which arranges unique experiences for children with life-threatening illnesses.
Having watched her mom go through such a difficult ordeal, Stanze said she understood the importance of putting the harsh realities on hold, if only for a while.
“I think that’s the best thing that we do is make them forget for just a minute that things are really bad,” Stanze said. “Because they know it’s not going to go away. They know, in the back of their minds, that this is not always going to end well.
“But in that moment, they can not think about it.”
Motivated by Lara’s passion, the entire Stanze family pitched in to help make Spread a Little Joy a reality, and founded the non-profit in September 2011 with the help and support of its youngest member — Maddie Stanze.
A senior at Smithville High School, Maddie has been one of the biggest advocates of Spread a Little Joy and devotes as much time as she can to the cause when she’s not serving as class president or taking a leading role in a school play.
But Maddie said being so involved at school allows her to spread the word to more and more of her fellow students, many of which have chipped in to help the organization.
“Almost all the things that I do at school help me to be a bigger part of it,” Maddie Stanze said. “The more I’m involved in, the more I can help. It’s a lot of time, but it’s worth it because I enjoy doing this as much as I enjoy doing anything else.”
Of course, Lara’s husband, John, has been as instrumental as anyone to the group’s success, along with her other two children — John and Jessica — and her brother-in-law, Erick Gomer.
But the support of the entire Smithville community and beyond has been just as crucial, Lara said.
“It’s a group effort,” she said. “We could not do this without the people in our network. We could not do this without this community, and people just start reaching out.
“And we wouldn’t be able to do it without all that.”
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Spread a Little Joy has made dreams come true for nearly two dozen families, and each wish is just as unique as the individuals who experience them.
For some, it’s taking a trip with their families to Branson or Myrtle Beach. Another involved sending their daughter with Down Syndrome to a One Direction concert. At the moment, the group is raising funds to provide a man with a riding lawnmower.
But for Lara Stanze, the most memorable wish will always be the first one she helped fulfill on Thanksgiving of 2011.
Her mom had passed away just a few days before but being able to provide a full Thanksgiving dinner for a family in need helped her cope with her loss.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,’” Lara said. “And that family was just so grateful. They were overwhelmed.”
More and more requests continued to roll in during the first couple years, and Spread a Little Joy gained a spike in recognition this past summer when Lara won a national contest conducted by Ocean Spray. Along with the surge in attention, Lara and John enjoyed a five-day trip to New York in October as part of the contest.
More importantly, though, it gave her a larger platform to spread her message to a larger audience, and others have expressed interest in joining the cause.
“The bigger we can grow our network, the more dreams we can make happen,” Lara said.
Even so, Lara and her family make a concerted effort to keep their original mission in mind and maintain a personal touch in the lives of each family they help. That’s why they try to only take on one project at a time so they can devote their full attention to the recipients.
The ultimate goal is to grow the organization, but not at the expense of the personal relationships that are the foundation of Spread a Little Joy.
“I don’t ever want to get so big that we lose the personal side,” Lara said. “I didn’t start this to be grandiose. I started it to make a difference in one person’s life, and that’s one person at a time.
“You’ve got this whole support network behind you. That’s how it works the best.”
Today, the organization is expanding its efforts and trying to spread its message across the entire Kansas City metro area with hopes of broadening its reach. For more information on the efforts, visit the group’s website at spreadalittlejoy.org.
Even as the organization continues to grow and expand its reach, Maddie Stanze said she will always rely on the experiences she shared with her grandmother as motivation for what Spread a Little Joy is trying to accomplish.
“I think it’s because we had those memories,” Maddie said. “And when I got sad, that’s what I went back to, those big dreams. And I think it’s because we had those memories we had to latch on to, and we want to give that to other families that are going through the same things.”
Smithville Sports Editor Andy Meyer can be reached at 532-4444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.