Jennifer Howell, 34
She has a star-studded army of volunteers (Kirsten Dunst
stuffs envelopes; Patricia Arquette is helping plan a January fundraising gala), but Jennifer Howell says her mission—to make sure hospitalized kids don't suffer alone—took root far from Hollywood. In 1996, childhood pal Stephen Hatten was battling leukemia when he told her about a boy getting cancer treatment at the same Nashville facility. "Stephen said, 'I have nothing to complain about. I've had friends and family by my side every step of this journey. But that little boy is in there every day by himself,'" recalls Howell. "That story never left me."
Neither did the memory of Hatten, who died in 1998 but lived long enough to see Howell start the nonprofit Art of Elysium, which pairs ill children with actors, artists and musicians for creative bonding. What Howell began in 1997 with 23 friends has grown into a network of more than 1,000 volunteers—some with names like Penélope, Joaquin and Scarlett—who this year visited 20,000 kids in the L.A. area (with plans to expand to New York in 2008). "I think what we do for the kids is but half of what they do for us," says the single Hattiesburg, Miss., native, who had initially dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. Actor Balthazar Getty, her pal and a longtime Elysium supporter, agrees: "The entertainment industry can be self-centered. Helping these kids is food for the soul."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM Please include your name, phone number and e-mail address. For more information on The Art of Elysium, go to www.theartofelysium.org.