Following the accident that burned over 80 percent of her body, Stephanie Nielson lay in bed pretending she was asleep. She was avoiding therapists who, in an effort to aid her recovery, came into her hospital room to talk through the trauma she was experiencing after a plane crash that left both Nielson and her husband, Christian, so badly burned that they were placed in medically induced comas. While she knew the therapists meant well, Nielson felt that rehashing the emotions associated with the horrific accident was not helping.
“I was thinking, ‘What would be helpful to me?’" Nielson said. "And I thought, ‘It would be so great if my therapist or nurse would bring a computer in and say, ‘Check out this girl. She was burned just like you, and look what she’s doing now.’ It would just be so nice for me to sit and watch this woman who went through something very similar to me and now has a beautiful life.”
Now, more than seven years later, the Nielsons are launching Beauty Rises, a 501(c)(3) public charity that will “inspire hope and heroism in people who need it most,” according to the charity's website. This hope will come through video vignettes, such as the one Nielson imagined during her own hospital stay, and through programs the Nielsons will offer to schools and hospitals.
The charity, which is in the startup phase, will officially launch in February with 12 chapters throughout the United States.
Donations to Beauty Rises will be used to create inspiring messages about what beauty is and where it comes from. The funds will also help the Nielsons extend the reach of the charity by allowing them to visit the chapters throughout the country and enhancing the website. The Nielsons hope the charity will eventually offer scholarships to women whose lives inspire others.
Nielson recognizes that her life experiences have uniquely qualified her to relate to those who are struggling with self-worth.
“I can confidently stand in front of junior high kids and say, ‘I know what it feels like to feel ugly and worthless and stupid, and I know what it feels like to feel lonely and depressed and sad,’” Nielson said. “But I also know what it feels like to be empowered and feel beautiful despite challenges and pain and hardships. And I know what that does for somebody, so I can bring that to them, and hopefully they trust me enough to take that and apply it in their lives.”
Nielson vividly remembers looking at herself in the mirror for the first time following her accident and wondering how her husband could still love her. But he did, and he still does.
“Stephanie won’t say this, but I can because I’m the president of her fan club,” Christian Nielson said. “There is a phenomenon that happened in Stephanie. When her beauty was physically burned away, it was restored to her, and not because plastic surgeons fixed it or repaired it, although she did receive great care. It rose up from within her. It came up and exposed itself on the surface again because there is a beautiful woman inside that came out and became visible again on the surface.”
Nielson said her husband's ability to see her innate beauty through her physical scars inspired the charity to include in its objectives a goal to help men recognize true beauty.
“I really, really believe that if I didn’t have a nose or lips or hands or legs or whatever that he would totally still love me regardless because he knows my heart and my soul," Nielson said. "And I want people to have that relationship, and I think it starts with helping men understand and see what beauty really truly is.”
Nielson’s blog has given her a platform on which to share her story, but she doesn’t want the charity to be about her. Instead, Beauty Rises will focus on telling the stories of other women Nielson considers worthy of recognition.
“Speaking to these people around the world, I have met people who have amazing substance inside,” Nielson said. “And they have gone through really hard things, but they are doing it beautifully, and they’re not getting any praise for it. People aren’t talking about them and tweeting about them and taking pictures of them. And those are the women that need their stories to be told.”
Although the charity will feature stories of those who, like the Nielsons, face physical challenges, the couple will make it “a charity for everyone,” as they believe everyone has their own struggles, as well as their own true beauty.
“We want to tell the stories of people who are living beautiful lives,” Christian Nielson said. “I think there are plenty of people in Hollywood and celebrities who are beautiful on the inside, but no one appraises them for that. ... We want to give people a way to appraise that beauty and to appreciate it and to experience it and to recognize it and to put it on a pedestal and to spotlight people to show how beauty rises from within.”
The charity’s name is inspired by a scripture from the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament: “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”
The Nielsons say this scripture is what Beauty Rises is all about.
“We know that there are a lot of people who suffer,” Christian Nielson said. “Sometimes it’s because they’re injured and in a hospital. Sometimes it’s because they’re bullied at school. Being able to bring beauty for ashes and show them how beauty rises and how to live a happy, beautiful life is what we want to do.”