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Blog: Stories and Insight

Turning Shadows into Lights through Community Service



Russ, Susan, and Tyler Brown in 2015.
(Left) Russ, Susan, and Tyler Brown in 2015.

In a college application essay, Tyler Brown wrote, “If we all come together, we can turn shadows into lights.”

This foretelling is exactly what his parents did after he died suddenly on March 12, 2016.

Russ Brown and his wife Susan lost their only child in a car crash that day. Tyler was 17. His family described him as an artist, two-sport varsity athlete, camp counselor, student, friend to many, and a community servant.

Tyler was a people person and enjoyed giving back to his community. In the college application essay, he reflected on being a boy of 12 and meeting a homeless man in Philadelphia named Joe. The essay chronicled how Tyler spent hours talking with Joe about his life, struggles, and maintaining optimism under the worst circumstances. Joe’s story, and more importantly, his ability to stay “positive and keep his chin up when those shadows try to tear him down” reinforced to Tyler that he could too. Read entire essay here

It was then that Tyler pledged to himself to be an advocate for positivity and for people in need.

He channeled the goals of his personal mission into many volunteering efforts especially with his church youth group. In fact, he even surpassed his high school’s 100-hour community service requirement by 1,000 hours.

This dedication inspired his high school to rename the service award given to a graduating senior with the most community-service hours in honor of him. It is now called the Tyler Brown 16 Pillar of Service Award.

Motivated by his community spirit, ability to see light in the shadows, and as a way to honor and remember their son’s life, Tyler’s parents volunteered two times a year alongside of their family and friends, Tyler’s friends and their parents, and his teachers. Usually, it was once near March 12 and once near Tyler’s birthday on September 1. They volunteered for various not-for-profit organizations such as Broad Street Ministries, Cathedral Kitchen, and Ranch Hope.

However, in 2021, their bi-annual act of giving back took a sad turn when Susan needed the comfort and support of Samaritan’s hospice care for endometrial cancer.

Despite the significant and compounding loss, Russ and Susan’s sister Sally were determined to continue the group’s volunteer efforts in memory of their cherished son, nephew, wife, and sister.

Choosing Samaritan

Family and friends making clay hearts for Samaritan.
Family and friends making clay hearts for Samaritan.

Russ and Sally picked Samaritan as their charity of choice this year. Choosing Samaritan fulfilled their mission of giving back and it served as a way to thank the not-for-profit healthcare provider for the compassionate and heartfelt care bestowed on their family. Samaritan staff brought light to the shadows of Susan’s final days.

“My wife was experiencing pain in her last days. The nurse was so responsive and helped get her pain under control so that she could rest comfortably. Susan was also able to be remain in her home surrounded by family and friends. It really meant a lot to us,” said Russ.

There are many ways to volunteer for Samaritan. Russ and Sally decided to make clay hearts, a special and unique gift, for family caregivers. They made more than 500 hearts out of nine pounds of clay with the help of 40 friends and family, plus volunteers from Ranch Hope. Ranch Hope held a special group in-service in Tyler’s honor to make hearts as part of Russ and Sally’s contribution.

Helping Grieving Adults & Children

Samaritan’s clay heart project was originally designed to help staff and families memorialize and honor a loved one who just passed away on Samaritan’s services. A hospice team member presents a clay heart to the patient’s caregiver as part of a touching ritual. The handmade token is placed in the caregiver’s hand and a beautiful verse that comes with each heart is recited.

Just a few of the clay hearts made for Samaritan.

This year, the clay hearts will also be used for a new grief support initiative. Samaritan has always been committed to providing adults and children with the grief support they need during these difficult times. Now, the organization will provide customized grief support kits to children grieving the loss of a loved one. The kits are a plain photo box (memory box) that includes an assortment of varying items such as a clay heart, journal, crayons, modeling clay, bookmarker, friendship bracelet, ornaments, cards, and more.  They are age specific for younger children, tweens, and teens. Also included with the kit is information for parents with tips on talking to, and supporting, their grieving child.

Thanks to Russ, Sally, and friends for finding light in the shadows for Samaritan patients and their families. More than 200 of the 500 hearts they made will be used in the first batch of grief support kits. The remaining donation of clay hearts will be given to hospice patient caregivers.

Learn more about the hearts in this tribute video: “We’re still here – the hospice grieving process”

If you would you like to get involved, contact Sharon Wenner at 856-552-3238 or swenner@SamaritanNJ.org for information and instructions.