When you listen to Cristabelle Braden speak, she does it confidently and with a smile, yet she's quiet and chooses her words carefully.
When you listen to her sing, she hits the notes perfectly with her powerful voice.
It's what you'd expect from any professional singer, but not one who went through what Braden has.
On December 2, 2007, Braden suffered a traumatic brain injury when she hit her head off the floor while playing a game, which caused her brain to swell. It was a story we covered two years ago, but the impact of the injury still affects her today.
Even though the life-altering event took away a lot from Braden, including memory loss, there was one thing she found after the fact – hope.
With that hope, Braden created an organization called Hope After Head Injury to instill that hope to others who have suffered through similar situations.
"It's a part of who I am at this point. With my Hope After Head Injury organization, I named it that because after my head injury, that's when I found hope. At first, there were some dark times," Braden explained. "When I found hope, I've continued to hold on to it. When I think of my brain injury, I just think of hope. I think of moving forward.
"I still have difficulties, I do. They haven't gone away. I still have headaches and problems. I think of where I came from and how far I can continue to go. With that, I think of hope."
At first, Hope After Head Injury was just an anonymous Twitter account that Braden created. After a while, it picked up steam, which led Braden to come out behind the figurative curtain to put a face with the account.
"There were a lot of people out there that really needed hope. I continued tweeting, but then I realized I should probably say who I am and not keep it anonymous. I connected it to my music career after about a year of tweeting anonymously," Braden said. "I started a Facebook page, an online blog, video blog and an Instagram. It grew from social media to real life things. I started to have Hope After Head Injury events incorporated into my music career. It's just now something that is starting to get established. I'm excited for the future of the organization."
It's something that the Center Valley native will have more time for now that she is almost finished with college. Braden graduates from Lebanon Valley College on Saturday, May 9, with a double major in music and religion.
Along with her organization, Braden is looking forward to continuing her budding music career, which she says will be her full-time job.
"I'm going to be recording my third CD. I'm very excited. I'm going to be continuing full force into my music career. I'm very excited to be going into that full time," said Braden. "Now that I'm finished with school, I can put all of my energy into doing this full time. It's what I love."
Braden, an independent artist, said she will be releasing her single for her new album in June with the working title of "We're Gonna Make It." Her new album will be out later this year, but it will be different from her past two efforts, which were faith-based worship CDs.
"My music has changed a lot over the past couple of years, especially with going to Nashville last year for a few months and coming back. Now, I write inspirational pop music. It's music that you can sing along to and it can brighten your day," Braden said, with a smile. "I know that I have very hard days. My next single is a drive-in-your-car-with-the-windows-down-fist-pumping song. Because those hard days that you have I want my music to be the place people can go after those hard days. They'll know that somebody gets it. I want them to listen to the song and get it, too."
For now, Braden is promoting her latest single, "Hope Survives," which is available on iTunes, Amazon and bandcamp.com. On the latter site, people can buy the song and make a donation. All of the proceeds from the song go to brain injury awareness.
According to Braden, the song is about struggles, but how there is always hope. She said that it resonates a lot with brain injury survivors, but it resonates with survivors of anything or for anyone who has been through anything difficult.
"I'm going to put out a music video for that song, which incorporates my fans. They are holding up signs telling about how hope has helped them in their life. A lot of the Hope After Head Injury survivors have submitted signs for that. That was pretty cool to see," Braden said, with a smile. "I would love to partner up with other brain injury organizations to host some events. I also want to do a Hope After Head Injury Tour with my music that I can announce now. That's something I see happening in the future. I would be an artist, but I would have others on, as well."
Braden has a list of shows on her website at cristabellebraden.com, with an upcoming one in Philadelphia on May 29. This summer, she'll be doing a military base tour that will take her to Georgia, New Mexico and other bases around the country.
Depending on the venue, Braden will either play music, do some motivational speaking or a combination of both.
"I play at churches, festivals, anywhere. I play secular venues, too. I do pop music, pop covers outside at festivals. It's a combination with my brain injury organization, too," Braden explained. "I speak on the brain injury. Some of my shows are more speaking oriented, where I'll share just one song or two. Some of them are more music oriented, where I'll play an hour of music and speak for a little bit. I really just play to whatever people want.
"Motivational speaking was something that I never thought I would do at first. Whenever I played music, I always wanted to share a little bit of what happened to me, because I didn't feel that I could be transparent in my shows without sharing about what happened. The more I did it, the more people said that I was an inspiration. I never thought of myself that way. I thought of myself as a girl that went through a lot of struggles."
Her brain injury still impacts her music and her shows today. For instance, Braden is unable to drive – "yet," as she was quick to point out – so her family has to drive her to shows that can be up to 2-3 hours away at times.
"They're behind me 100 percent. I'm so grateful to them for that. It's incredible," Braden said. "They drive me to the shows and drive me home. It's great. They're kind of like my roadies."
Another way it impacts Braden's career was on display during her free concert at Lebanon Valley College on April 26.
During her show, Braden started to play her guitar to start the song. Instead of singing, she kept playing the guitar while telling the crowd, "I'm playing the guitar because I'm trying to remember the words to start the song."
If you bring it up to Braden, it's no big deal.
"I still have memory loss difficulties from my brain injury. I'm not concerned at all about it. I have fun on stage and I enjoy it so much," Braden said, with a laugh. "If I forget words, who cares? I'm having fun and the audience is having fun. I've forgotten words in the middle of a song before. I just sing 'I don't remember these words.' We have fun."
Forgetting the words is nothing for her. It's bound to happen after the incident that changed her life forever. Just like other areas, Braden chooses to overcome the adversity and battle the odds instead of giving into them.
That's exactly what took for her to be able to walk across the stage to get her degrees.
"After my brain injury, my goal was to get through rehab therapy. My goal was to get dressed again by myself. I wasn't thinking about college. I couldn't do anything by myself. I didn't know if I could live independently ever. I never thought I'd go to college," Braden explained, with a noticeably different tone to her voice. "The doctors didn't think I'd graduate high school. Me being here, graduating college, is so humbling. I'm so grateful."
Braden believes what she says, too. While she may wake up and have a hard day like the rest of us, she puts it all in perspective with what could have been.
"I sit here, and I'm amazed at what God has done in my life and how far I have come. The fact that I have been healed this much, I feel like there is responsibility that comes with that. That's why I do what I do," Braden said. "I feel like I've been given the gift of communication. I'm able to speak, think and communicate. I've been given the gift of music and song. I need to use that to help people and serve people.
"I very well could have not lived after my brain injury. Other people who had pressure build up like I had have died after it happened. I didn't. I'm reminded of that a lot. I wake up and celebrate that it's a new day and that I'm here. I want to serve people while I'm here. That's why I do what I do. I don't care if it's a show for three people or for hundreds of people. I just love sharing music. I love sharing hope through music. That's why I do it."
For more information on Braden, you can visit cristabellebraden.com, headafterheadinjury.com, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, "like" her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @itscristabelle.