Hurricane retiree gives hearts of hope to sick children for the holidays

HURRICANE — While some people struggle to figure out what to give for the holidays, Brenda Domyan has already given away 500 gifts that come directly from her heart.

Brenda Domyan, 69, of Hurricane, Utah, stands with just some of her 500 hearts of hope on Dec. 5, 2019, bound for Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Namely, 500 hearts. 

The Hurricane woman has spent much of her time since August creating and painting 500 porcelain hearts that are now decorating Christmas trees at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.

For Domyan, the “Hearts of Hope” project aims to provide the holiday present of smiles to the faces of the sick children in the 252 beds of the largest pediatric facility in the state.  

“We all love seeing the joy in a child’s face,” Domyan said. “ I mean, it’s indescribable.”

Domyan and her husband, Lenny, turned the master bedroom of their Hurricane home into a heart-making factory, filled with brushes and the scent of alcohol-based paint. By the start of December, the room was filled with boxes. Inside were the finished hearts ready to be driven the 4 1/2 up to the Salt Lake area. By Dec. 11, the Hearts of Hope were adorning trees on three floors of the hospital.  

During the summer, Domyan wasn’t giving her hearts away — she was selling them. The 69-year-old retired administrative assistant was one of many artisans selling wares at the various craft shows, street fairs and markets in the area. That all melted away with the disappointment of one little girl. 

Domyan was selling her wares at the St. George Farmer’s Market in August when she saw one little girl fascinated by the shiny porcelain hearts reflecting off the summer sun. 

“I want this! I want this to hang up in my room,” the girl said. But her mother did what many parents do with a child who doesn’t understand price tags and just wants to move on: She told her child she would “think about it” and just walked on to the next booth. 

“My heart just sank. I wanted to give it to her because I could feel that she was just in love with it,” Domyan said. “And I go, ‘This isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to sit at shows. But I love to paint these hearts. What am I going to do with them?’”

Dealing with childhood disappointment

Just a few of the 500 porcelain hearts of hope created in her master bedroom-turned studio, Hurricane, Utah, Dec. 5, 2019 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Domyan never had children of her own but remembers her own disappointment as a ninth-grader in her native Columbia, Pennsylvania. A self-professed “river rat” like many in the borough near the Susquehanna River, she also had her aspirations on writing. Unfortunately, as a little girl in a time when society still classified the main female career aspiration to be a homemaker, she was only discouraged in school. 

In that class, she was asked to write a descriptive paragraph of what she wanted to be and had to read it out loud.  The female teacher not only laughed at her writing aspirations, she encouraged Domyan’s classmates to do the same. 

“That was the breaking point for me,” Domyan said, adding that it haunted her with every additional “no” she got for her life aspirations. No, you can’t be a park ranger. No, you can’t work for an airline.

“Deep inside, you know you can do something. But you get beat up by life. I was always being told I can’t do it.”

In her 50s, Domyan decided to no longer take “no” for an answer. She left being an administrative assistant behind and started her own business making organic treats for cats and dogs for 11 years before selling the business. She did work for kids and around her love of nature. That love of nature led to photography and art.  

And despite that ninth-grade teacher, she wrote two self-published books of art, photography and prose. 

Her love of nature also had her leave Pennsylvania behind 17 years ago for the natural beauty of Utah — first living in Kanab and then, for the last six years, in Hurricane.

In retirement, she has continued that love for nature and art and no longer having to be told “no.”

But the let-downs of her past led her thoughts back to that disappointed child at the St. George market. A friend mentioned the many children dealing with the disappointment of a hospital stay during the holidays, and Domyan found who she could give her hearts to.

Reaching out to Primary Children’s Hospital

One of three trees created utilizing some of the 500 porcelain hearts created by Hurricane resident Brenda Domyan greets the child patients of Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City on Dec. 11, 2019. | Photo courtesy Brenda Domyan, St. George News

Domyan then went to her husband to tell him that for the next four months, much of her energy would be going to creating 500 hearts, then driving them up to Salt Lake City and decorating three trees, and her only payment would be a wholehearted thank you.

His response was not one of surprise or trepidation. 

“I told her to go for it,” Lenny Domyan said. “Brenda dabbles in everything and that’s what I love about her. It’s not a hobby with her. It’s a life experience. Brenda samples everything in the buffet of life.”

After making a few more sample hearts, Brenda Domyan decided to drive the four-plus hours in the heat of August to the hospital in Salt Lake City. And she wasn’t going to listen to anybody who would tell her she was wasting her time. 

“I contacted their foundation’s (gifts-in-kind) department and I drove up and took my hearts with me and asked if they’d be interested in a program like this,” she said. “If you don’t do anything, then nothing will happen.”

Luckily for Domyan and the children she hoped to help, something did happen. The hospital staff were sold on the idea and were open to Domyan providing her hearts to the Primary Children’s Hospital’s young patients. 

There was still more luck ahead for Domyan. She found out she was not going to be doing her effort alone. 

Hearts of Hope becomes a group effort  

One of the 500 porcelain hearts of hope created in her master bedroom-turned studio, Hurricane, Utah, Dec. 5, 2019 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

It’s easy to be cliche and say Domyan’s hearts were made out of her own heart —  They’re actually alcohol-based paint on porcelain. But it isn’t a stretch to say it came out of the hearts of many.

The first thing Domyan did was let her three sisters and one brother know that they would not get the full participation they usually got from her for the holidays. Christmas was going to be a little different this year, she told them.

Their response was support – and a donation of funds for the effort. And those donations weren’t just limited to family. 

Like a domino effect of holiday spirit, the help started rolling in as word spread about Domyan’s effort in the form of donations and discounts, ranging from the Hurricane Walmart on one side of Washington County to the Harmons in Santa Clara on the other. Dentist and doctors pitched in, as did hardware stores, clothing shops and even a craft supplier all the way in Ohio. 

One of the biggest assists came from Curtis Ryder, who has been selling cars at Ken Garff St. George Ford for 40 years. He not only donated the use of a van for Domyan to drive the boxes of hearts up to Salt Lake City, he volunteered to drive the van himself. 

“She is the ultimate inspirer,” Ryder said of Domyan. “It’s a worthy goal. Why not do something to help?”

Along with the van transporting the hearts, St. George Shuttle volunteered a ride to Domyan round-trip free of charge. 

In all, 12 businesses nationwide provided some sort of help to Domyan’s effort, and additional donations came from more than 30 other individuals. Even a Girl Scouts troop pitched in.

“I’m usually a pretty happy person but I was still overwhelmed by the response,” Domyan said, adding it bolstered her resolve to complete her effort. “I knew it was the right thing to do.” 

Brenda Domyan works on one of her hearts of hope in her Hurricane, Utah, home on Dec. 5, 2019 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Days of work go into each heart

On the surface, the process through which Domyan creates the hearts is deceptively simple. But the time needed to complete each heart makes it some kind of Christmas miracle that all 500 were ready in time for the holiday.

It starts with a plain porcelain heart that is washed clean by alcohol. Domyan then adds a base coat of color on one side. 

What happens from there is completely random. “I never know how each heart will turn out,” Domyan said. 

She will add a kaleidoscope of additional colors between letting others dry until she reaches an end result then repeat the process for the other side. Once she is satisfied with the result, she adds a seal on both sides of the heart that takes multiple days to complete.

In all, Domyan said it takes eight days to complete each heart — four days for painting and drying both sides of one heart to let the ink set in and four days to seal each side.

• See the start of the process for each heart in the video at the top of this report • 

Lenny (left) and Brenda Domyan in their Hurricane, Utah, home on Dec. 5, 2019 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Considering that Domyan had 500 hearts to complete between August and the end of  November, the task seemed a little more complicated. 

“There are some mornings I would wake up and everything would run smoothly,” said Domyan, who has needed some help from her chiropractor during the project. “And there were days I would wake up and it was like, ‘Oh this is not a day to paint.’”

But completed it was. On Dec. 9, the Hearts for Hope van made its way to Salt Lake City. By Dec. 11, one tree on each of three floors of Primary Children’s Hospital was filled with Domyan’s 500 hearts. 

Just before Thanksgiving, with all her hearts completed, Domyan was already thinking about her next project.

“The other day I’m looking at my husband and saying I’m getting other ideas,” said Domyan, who is pretty sure those ideas will once again be about bringing a smile to a child’s face. “It’s the children’s faces. That’s the reward.”

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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