When Kierra Brown was a little girl living in Florida, her family could not afford to take her to Disney World, even though it was just a couple of hours away. But that didn’t stop Brown, like many little girls, from loving the goodness and special qualities that Disney princess characters brought to life.
Now, at 25, the beauty queen, children’s book author and entrepreneur delivers that same joy to sick children, leading a group of students at the University of Florida who dress up like Snow White, Ariel, Belle and Cinderella through a free program Brown started last November called Project Princess.
For Brown, with her long black hair, dark skin and broad smile, it all started with her portraying Princess Tiana, the tenacious star of Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” in October 2012. Since then she’s visited with more than 2,000 hospitalized children on the monthly visits, she says.
“There were so many similarities in that character’s story that related to my life. It was about this princess from New Orleans who has a dream of owning her own restaurant but she grows up in a poor environment,” Brown tells PEOPLE.
“I grew up in a single parent home – my father passed away when I was 3 – and in a not-so-nice community,” she says. “I saw my mother struggle and work so hard to ensure my brother, my siblings and me could have a better life. What that story told me was that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams.”
Brown saw firsthand the joy that a princess visit could bring to sick children when she was just 19. Following her dreams to help others, she donned a Tiana costume she’d made herself and went out to visit them at hospitals in the Gainesville community. She met on her first visit a little girl who was battling leukemia, but whose heart was awe-inspiring.
“She had lost all of her hair. And she’d been confined to the same hospital room for nine months but she was laughing and smiling,” Brown recalls. “She was telling me how she loved me. And to see her so happy and to bring that joy to her by dressing up like a princess, it was like ‘Wow!'”
Hoping to do more for her community, Brown created a university-based community service club, Project Princess UF. When she put out a first call for casting, more than 100 women turned up last October to audition for 16 princess spots.
Among those chosen was Lesly Ramirez, a 21-year-old UF advertising major from Miami. She says putting on Tiana’s elaborate leaf-embellished dress, the theatrical make-up, her tiara, is a production. But, she adds of her character’s industriousness and hard-working moxie: “She gives me hope.”
Ramirez takes her role seriously, quickly moving into character as she visits a children’s hospital and outpatient treatment center. “Hi, y’all,” she’ll say, as she greets tiny patients using a deep Southern accent befitting Tiana’s New Orleans roots.
“It always lifts my spirit. Even when I am tired, once I have this experience, it’s like this just made my day, ” Ramirez says. “The children, they are so excited to see you, every single time. It’s so hard not to cry. They have these dire situations, and they are just so resilient. They inspire me.”
Pediatric anesthesiologist Cole Dooley says it was a great day when his daughter Phoebe, four and a half, received an at-home visit from Cinderella, portrayed by Project Princess Club President Kailyn Allen.
Phoebe, who has undergone 30 radiation treatments and is now in a clinical trial, has Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a relatively rare tumor of the brain stem that predominantly affects preschool age kids. For now, Phoebe’s tumor is stable.
Dooley says his daughter, “a typical little girl who loves pink and who is completely infatuated with animals,” got a much-needed break when Cinderella arrived so the two could do make-up and crafts together.
“My daughter just thought this was the coolest thing,” he tells PEOPLE. “She’s not typically hugely into princesses, but she thought it’s the coolest thing that Cinderella came to our house.”
He praises Brown’s project, noting that she has taken a deep interest in his family (wife Sarah Dooley is an emergency room physician) and has worked hard in her community to help shine a light on pediatric cancer. Most of all, though, she helped bring Phoebe, their only child, a rare moment of joy.
“I think greatest thing about it was to see her be a little kid,” Dooley says. “It was a reminder that she still is a little kid. She still enjoys little kid things and this whole process hasn’t changed her overall.
“I mean, who wouldn’t like to have a princess come to your house and play with them and read stories and make them feel special?” he says. “Kierra essentially brought that to our house. For a little bit of time, Phoebe wasn’t worried when she had to go get labs next or take medicine. She got to be a little kid.”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to “firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine.