They come painted with different colors and styles, each emblazoned with phrases and inspirational mantras.
“Just breathe.” “Love wins.” “Choose hope, choose love.” “Fear is a liar.”
Some are painted by survivors of natural disasters or community tragedies. Others are painted by the community of love and support that embraces the survivors in the wake of them. But all carry the same message of hope.
The Stars of HOPE project is a large part of the reason that Ocoee resident Elsie Cintron-Rosado continues to push on and offer her own love and support to others.
Cintron-Rosado lost her daughter, Maria Isabel Ramirez, on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 18 years later, she still grieves daily — but the hope that has been instilled in her since 9/11 keeps her going.
BEAUTY IN GRIEF
Cintron-Rosado first was introduced to Stars of HOPE through the New York Says Thank You Foundation, the umbrella for Stars of HOPE. She met the NYSTYF’s program managers in 2015 during the National 9/11 Flag installation in 2015. The National 9/11 Flag was hung on the exterior of her daughter’s office building in the weeks following 9/11, and it became a symbol of America’s resilience.
Stars of HOPE is a nonprofit started by the NYSTYF, and it serves as a healing arts program. The disaster-response and community-arts program empowers people to transform communities impacted by both natural and human-caused disasters. This is done by creating and displaying colorful art and messages of hope and healing, particularly through painting wooden stars.
“The concept is to paint a star and then pay it forward,” Cintron-Rosado said. “It typically works in several ways — one can purchase a Box of HOPE, or a company would purchase boxes and do it as a corporate social responsibility or a team-building thing.”
A friend gave Cintron-Rosado her first Star of HOPE a few years back. It was painted with flowers and her favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, and she was so touched by it that she decided to pay it forward by volunteering.
“I’m very grateful to them — they helped me in a lot of ways,” she said of Stars of HOPE. “They opened me up as I was suffering and grieving. Being here in Florida you don’t have the tight-knit community you do in New York (for 9/11), because over there everyone gets together and you have hundreds of people.”
For many years following her daughter’s death, Cintron-Rosado struggled with her grief and emotions. It wasn’t until she came to know God, as well as her friends at Stars of HOPE, that she began to pick herself up more and more and continue on.
“It’s my way of paying it forward, and that’s what we do,” she said. “They knew I was a grieving mom, and they took me out of that grief. I’m still hurting and grieving every day, but I don’t dwell on it. I’m living a little.”
HOPE FOR ALL
The first time Cintron-Rosado went on a trip with Stars of HOPE, it was to New York following Hurricane Sandy. She and the team were helping to rebuild a first responder’s home, and they also led a painting project simultaneously.
The stars have been painted in or distributed to communities such as Orlando following the Pulse shooting, Parkland, Las Vegas, San Bernardino and Sandy Hook. Stars are distributed to first responders, corporations, local shopkeepers and to anyone who has helped the community in the face of tragedy.
Locally, Cintron-Rosado has delivered stars to FBI staff, Orlando police officers and other first responders, and to Ocoee Police Chief Charlie Brown, among many others.
“After Pulse we hung them up by the Dr. Phillips Center (for the Performing Arts), we gave some to the FBI and they hung them by the Pulse site,” she said. “Those were the first stars that came to Orlando, after Pulse. We gave them to churches, the fire department, the police department. We gave them to some of the communities and shops around there, and we gave them to individuals who are hurting. Helping them helped me.”
Stars of HOPE Director of Operations Josh Garcia was part of the management team at Pulse nightclub, and he witnessed what was going on outside the building as it was happening. Days after the shooting, he said, it was Cintron-Rosado and other Stars of HOPE volunteers who introduced him to the project and inspired him.
“These stars for some reason connected so many people dealing with their traumas,” Garcia said. “It became a way for us to let our guard down and start talking. It let us know that what we’re going through is normal and maybe we should seek further help. It all started with Elsie dropping off those first stars.
“It’s really just so amazing,” he said. “Even when we talk about Stars of HOPE I say, ‘Yeah, there’s my story, but there’s so many incredible people out there who have gotten their healing through stars.’ It gives me strength seeing someone like Elsie continue to honor with action and keep moving things forward.”
As with any survivor or person coping with trauma or the loss of a loved one, there are good days and bad days. Cintron-Rosado said she still cries most days, but now she has hope through both her faith and paying it forward. Every time she paints a star she thinks of her daughter and asks her to give her inspiration.
“This is a pay-it-forward,” she said. “Just come with a good attitude, with hope and love in your heart and with patience. This helped me a lot. God didn’t have any hate in Him; why should you? We have to show that there is hope. We have to show that tomorrow is going to be better and to just have that hope, love and faith in you. Show people kindness and give somebody else a little hope. It will brighten your day.”