At the 25th Annual Renal Teen Prom, the petite spitfire head of RSN, Lori Hartwell, moves around the room in the fashion of a practiced social butterfly: one moment, she’s chatting with some of the adolescent attendees, a warm smile on her face, the next moment she’s deep in conversation with an old friend, her serious face on, then she’s chatting joyfully, lightly, with actress Mayan Lopez. Lori’s the unspoken, everlasting Prom Queen—on the night of January 14th and always. She knows how to make people feel good, feel heard and seen, and retains a sense of elegance and grace with ease.
Back in December, the RSN “Dress Shop” opened at RSN’s Studio Hope in Glendale, California. The first of the “shoppers” was Breck B. (our “Princess in Scrubs”) and Lori held court as Breck sifted through the hundreds of dresses to find her pick. The walls of Studio Hope are lined with Lori’s paintings. Beyond her full-time work of running RSN, planning and executing the Renal Teen Prom each year, acting as Editor-in-Chief of Kidney Talk magazine, a host of Kidney Talk podcast and more, Lori’s a profoundly talented visual artist. She’s prolific, too. The art in the studio alone ranges from scenes of nature and flowers to experimental, Jackson Pollock-esque splatter work. Today, however, the dresses are the key focus. The racks of colorful gowns (over 400, I’m told) have been donated by a people throughout the years and some from a high-end dress boutique that closed in Beverly Hills. The girls get to keep the dresses they choose. Another talent of Lori’s is her ability to bring out the best in people, gathering kindness and goodwill and loving humans around her in droves.
As Lori, her joyful and pragmatic assistant Isela King, and a few volunteers wait patiently for Breck to come out of the changing room and model another dress, Lori suddenly pulls out a handful of patterned shirts from a bag. “I got these on Buy Nothing [a local Facebook group where members give items away to one another for free],” she shares. “Do any of you want them? I didn’t want them to go to waste.” Another act of giving, as seamless and second-hand as breathing, and then Lori’s onto the next. Breck emerges in a beautiful, Barbie-like gown with a high front and low back, and Lori’s transfixed, a fashionista in her element.
This year’s Renal Teen Prom is the twenty-fifth. Lori’s proud and excited, and the Dress Shop itself feels like a symbol for the Prom’s growth. This year is the first that RSN was able to do the shop since the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the first time it’s been at Studio Hope. The transition is seamless. The Prom started back in 1998. Lori had a few RSN volunteers from Notre Dame High School, senior girls who suggested hosting the event at their school upon its first conception. It was held in the cafeteria, to great success and with burgeoning stars present—Katharine McPhee sang at the event, years before her turn on American Idol and the series Smash. A few years later, another notable Notre Dame alumni attended, Kirsten Dunst. Lori recalls the years following, when the event was at the Hilton, the years that Jack Black and Nick Jonas attended. And this year, for the twenty-fifth iteration, the Renal Teen Prom is at the Stars on Brand event space in Lori’s neighborhood of Glendale. It’s a far cry from a high school cafeteria, with glittering chandeliers overhead, curtains draped on the elegant walls, and white tablecloths. In the upper corners of the room stand trees, bringing a sense of whimsy and nature, like Lori’s paintings.
Lori started the Prom all those years ago to give kids and young adults experiencing kidney disease to have a space to come together. “With the Prom, the beautiful subtlety is that you can just walk into the room and know you’re not alone.” Lori understands from her own experience, having emerged and re-emerged triumphant from many life-long close calls with her own kidney disease (and four transplants, to boot), that it’s easy to feel self-conscious when your body is an object of medical discussion, when you have “scars and battle wounds.” Each year, she creates a beautiful experience of community, an opportunity to dress up, to feel beautiful, feel free, and feel like a kid—a young adult—in the world. “The goal,” she says, “is never to remind [the attendees] that they have kidney disease, but to let them know they have that in common. Then they can create the friendship.” Lori grins. “It’s a celebration of life!”
At this year’s Prom, the Taylor Swift song “You Belong With Me” comes on (smart, DJ, smart) and suddenly every attendee is on the dance floor. There’s scream-singing, chanting along with the lyrics, jumping, grins from ear-to-ear. Kids being kids. Then the “Cha Cha Slide” comes on and the group increases even more, as everyone moves together in the socially-inherited choreography. Lori stands by the stage, grooving a little bit, smiling as the kids dance, looking over her kingdom. When it’s time for her to make a speech, she settles into her gentle but commanding mode: the caretaker. The event-planner. The head of everything, graceful and wise. She references those four seniors from Notre Dame in her speech, revealing that three of them are in attendance that very night. When people come into Lori’s orbit, once they’ve felt the love and the passion and the dedication that she brings to everything she does, a tiny Midas with the golden touch, they stay. A little cupcake appears practically out of nowhere with candles on it to celebrate the “birthday” of the Prom (“Happy twenty-fifth!”) and Lori blows it out. She becomes serious for a moment. With a beat of silence, Lori turns towards the crowd. “Remember. We are always here if you need help. Always.”
Lori’s heart understands every person there in attendance at the Prom. It beats for them, too. Years prior, she was told by various doctors that she shouldn’t have kids. After her third transplant, it was too risky, they deemed. She would lose the kidney—so another sacrifice was made. “Maybe that’s why I did this, started the Prom” Lori muses. “They’re all my kids.” She laughs a little. “If I had my own kids, I probably wouldn’t have the energy to do the Prom. I’d be busy taking them to soccer practice. My husband Dean is my biggest supporter of our unconventional family.”
In the Dress Shop with Breck back in December, Lori puts the motherly hat on, one of many in her collection: leader, artist, animal advocate, public speaker. Sitting in the corner of Studio Hope, she gives the young nurse advice on how to switch into a new sector of the hospital that interests her. Then they get into a passioned discussion about how hard it is to navigate care, especially for younger people, and how unstable the whole system is in general. On Prom Night, Lori’s motherly side comes out with each and every attendee whom she speaks with, encourages, asks about. She remembers, she cares, and she acts on behalf of as many people as she can. She gathers as many wishes as possible and works to help them come true. Yes, Lori is the Prom Queen of this night and all those yet to come, but she’s also the Fairy Godmother, the wish-granter. With her love and passion, anything is possible.
Maxine Phoenix is a freelance writer and she also volunteers for RSN.
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