CHICAGO — Rosie Quinn, 8, was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease alopecia when she was 2 years old. All of the hair on her head and body fell out within three weeks and never grew back.
She was largely unfazed.
“My husband and I would say, ‘If you want to go bald or wear cute little hats or anything, either way we are totally supportive,’” Paula Quinn, Rosie’s mom, said.
“I did not want to wear cute little hats or anything,” Rosie told me.
Too scratchy, too fussy, too much to keep track of when you’re busy being 2.
But a year or so later, the stares and the questions were starting to weigh on her.
“Around age 3ish her little flame started to extinguish,” Quinn said.
Kids would call her a baby. Strangers would mistake her for a boy, which she didn’t like. Customers would approach her mom at Starbucks and ask whether she was receiving cancer treatments, why she wasn’t wearing a wig, whether it was healthy to let her go around with her bare head uncovered.
“As parents, we were trying to wrap our heads around waking up one day and having a bald child in a society where everyone places so much focus on exterior beauty and not much focus on inner beauty,” Quinn said. “It was challenging to make Rosie feel special and awesome, because she looks different than your average 2 year old or 8 year old.”
“Because I’m not your average 2 year old or 8 year old,” Rosie declared.
Rosie lives in Roscoe Village with her parents and her younger sister, Caroline, 6, and their dog. She’s in third grade at St. Clement in Lincoln Park.
She is hilarious and brave and kind. She’s wise in that way that makes you want to pull out a notebook and write down all of her Rosie-isms, knowing they’ll come in handy as you dodge life’s slings and arrows.
Take, for example, her approach to bullies.
“There was this girl, she wasn’t that nice,” Rosie told me. “She would bully me a lot at school. She called me really mean names every day. It was getting so old! You can’t just make fun of how somebody looks! Anyway, I stood up for myself and now that’s over.”
“There’s pretty much nothing that’s going to hurt my feelings,” she said. “People honestly don’t even try to bully me anymore because they know I’m not an easy target. That’s some advice I would give to people if they have alopecia or if someone bullies them: You want to not be an easy target. Oh, and kill them with kindness. My mom told me that and it works.”
But back to when she was 3 and growing weary of the stares and questions.
“Some days she would want to tell people all about her alopecia and some days she would just want to not,” Paula Quinn said. “She did go through a phase where she’d walk up to every single bald man and be like, ‘We’re twins!’ ”
“I was always like, ‘I have alopecia! I’m Rosie!’ ”
Paula Quinn worked in human relations for Google at the time and she was telling her friend Dawn over lunch one day that she wished she could take Rosie’s paintings and have them made into scarves that Rosie could wear on her head. For the days when she didn’t feel like telling people all about her alopecia. For the days she just wanted to get a hot chocolate at Starbucks and not have customers sideline her mom with questions and advice.
“You can transfer a kid’s artwork onto a phone case, a cake,” Paula Quinn said. “Why not a head scarf?”
Paula Quinn’s friend connected her with her sister, who just happened to have started a business called McGovern and Company, which transposes photos of state parks onto bandanas, socks, blankets, you name it.
Armed with that knowledge and a recommendation for a custom printer, Paula Quinn took one of Rosie’s creations, snapped a photo of it and sent it away to be made into a scarf. A few weeks later, it arrived in the mail.
“I put it on and I looked in the mirror and I was smiling for five minutes straight,” Rosie said. “Then I said, ‘I want to give this to all the bald children!’”
That was in 2015. Paula Quinn spent the following year researching ways to take other kids’ paintings and artwork and turn them into scarves.
In 2016, they launched Coming Up Rosies. It started as an online store where you could upload your child’s artwork and pay to have it made into a scarf. The Quinns would then use the proceeds and any donations they received to assemble “smile kits” — a canvas, markers and paints — to donate to children’s hospitals around the country. Patients would design their own artwork, and Coming Up Rosies would turn that artwork into scarves, which they would donate back to the patients.
Paula Quinn eventually quit her job at Google and devoted her efforts to Coming Up Rosies full time. She shifted the focus to charity work and established it as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. You can still purchase scarves on the Coming Up Rosies online shop, but the bulk of the efforts go into assembling and distributing free smile kits to hospitals around the country and turning the canvases into scarves. Rosie and her mom assemble the kits at their dining room table one afternoon each week.
Since 2016, Paula Quinn estimates they’ve donated 1,200 smile kits.
“My goal is 12 million,” Rosie told me.
The kits go to 20 hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the country, plus a Chicago Ronald McDonald House. After a child turns the blank canvas into a piece of original artwork, a parent or guardian snaps a photo, uploads it to the Coming Up Rosies website and selects whether it should be made into a head scarf, a neck scarf or a superhero cape.
Some of the kids who make scarves and capes have alopecia. Others, Paula Quinn said, are undergoing treatments for cancer or severe burns or heart problems. Anything, really, that would have them staying in a hospital for a while.
“The reason we added superhero cape was for boys,” Rosie explained. “They were mostly making scarves for their moms or their grandmas and we wanted them to have something they would want to wear.”
Then they ship the final product back to the child. Rosie writes little notes to include: “I love your design!” “Stay strong!”
Rosie was honored in September by the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, an award established in 2011 to celebrate kids ages 8 to 18 making a difference in their communities. (Chicagoan Jahkil Jackson was a 2017 winner.)
In October, Coming Up Rosies earned the inaugural Purple Paladin prize from Grant Thornton. The Chicago-based accounting firm established the award to support a different up-and-coming nonprofit each year. As part of the award, Grant Thornton arranged for Rosie to spend a day with pro golfer Rickie Fowler, during which they visited the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago together.
“I do feel like this is a family charity,” Paula Quinn said. “I’m the worker bee. Caroline’s the helper. Larry’s a helper. Rosie is the face of the charity.”
“I’m the boss!” Rosie said, leaping to her feet with an arm in the air.
“But it’s not just Rosie’s charity,” Paula Quinn said. “It’s not even about Rosie. It’s not even about us. It’s just empowering kids to love themselves unconditionally, no matter what.”
Rosie has a bunch of scarves made of her artwork, but she’s back to mostly leaving her head bare. She knows not every bald kid wants to do that, though.
“I’m confident and I love my body,” she told me. “But some of the kids might not feel like that, so we started this charity to help them feel confident and then they can make other kids feel confident.”
And it all began when Rosie caught her own happy reflection in the mirror and decided she wanted other kids to feel that same way, that same delight.
I told her I think maybe her superpower is making other people happy. It’s not always an easy thing to do, and Rosie has found a way to do it every single day.
“That is like a superpower!” she said. “I never thought of that!”
I’ll never stop thinking about it, now that I’ve met this kid, this powerhouse of energy and kindness and joy.
Thanks, Rosie. The world needs more of what you’re serving.