BRANDON — Friends and family members gathered last week to surprise Brandon High senior Makayla Vulpis with big news.
Her story, her grace, her kindness and her heart earned her a place in the latest edition of Beauty Revived, a national magazine that features the work of photographers driven to highlight the "real beauty" of women.
An unsuspecting Vulpis didn't know until she walked into a room full of admirers.
The folks who came out on a rainy Saturday night to fete Vulpis have known about her giving spirit forever. Even as a grade-schooler, she helped watch toddlers at the original Beef O'Brady's while her mother, Stacy Lester, worked as a server at the restaurant.
Her friends say Vulpis continues to embrace a selfless approach, yet even a person at the reveal party who knew nothing of her generosity would have quickly recognized she embraces the charitable spirit of her late mother.
Lester, who spent more than 20 years endearing herself to the Brandon community as a server at various restaurants, died last May after suffering an aneurysm and stroke.
Among those who stepped forward to praise Vulpis with short speeches, two began to break down — their words halted by the emotion of the evening. Without missing a beat, Vulpis stepped forward to offer a hug, helping them through the moment with the warm smile that has become her trademark.
Vulpis also won over photographer Katrina Boone within minutes of their first meeting. Boone is a former teacher and preschool director who launched her own business, Gianna Grace Photography, several years ago. She said her Christ-centered faith led her to pursue participation in the Beauty Revived program.
Photographers apply to be included in one of the magazine's editions. If chosen, they seek out a woman living a "beautiful life," a woman who helps others, often while overcoming adversity. Boone qualified to have her work featured in the "50 most beautiful seniors" edition, and then partnered with Brandon High to find a worthy subject. Students promoted the campaign with a flyer that said, "Do you know a senior with a heart of gold?"
Students overwhelmingly selected Vulpis, but it may not have mattered. After reading the fifth nomination letter for Vulpis, Boone said she began to bawl.
For the photos, Boone took Vulpis to Ybor City and some of the experience her subject gained as a child model years ago reappeared. She's a natural.
And a natural friend. They say Vulpis always lends an ear to those who need to talk and a bright face to those who need a pick-up. Described as goofy and good-hearted, she laughs often, listens more than she speaks and lights up every room she enters.
In the wake of her mother's death, she's never sought sorrow, her smiles masking her mourning. Vulpis simply says her attributes come from her mother, and as one friend said, she doesn't give so much of herself because she's beautiful, she's beautiful because she gives so much of herself.
As for the future, Vulpis likely will move on to a local college and stay close to her grandparents. I asked if she might consider a modeling career, and she gave me a different smile — a "don't be silly" smile.
Maybe I haven't watched enough episodes of America's Next Top Model to know what it takes to make the runway, but as long as Vulpis continues to be selfless, as long as her army of angels continue to lend support, she will succeed. She will be loved.
And she will be beautiful.
That's all I'm saying.