September 27, 2007 | Posted by Nick Madigan
Portraits of optimism
Ill children relish free photo sessions held by nonprofit at UM Medical Center
Prodded by a photographer, little Ty'Niajah Devonshire hammed it up, placing her hands on her hips and strutting her 10-year-old stuff. She had everyone in the room laughing.
Just out of camera range was an intravenous pole on wheels, its long tendrils snaking into the veins of Ty'Niajah's right arm and pumping medications into her bloodstream to treat the sickle cell disease that she has had since she was born.
The camera kept clicking. Ty'Niajah kept hamming.
"Oh, you're a girly girl - you love it," exclaimed Becky Wimsatt, a specialist who cares for sick children at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where the photo shoot took place yesterday. "You're going to show all these to the boys, aren't you?"
In a few weeks, Ty'Niajah, a student at Severn River Middle School near Annapolis who has been hospitalized 30 times, will be able to show the photos to whomever she wants. She and her mother, Ty'Kitra Jacobs, will receive a packet with the photographs, courtesy of Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that organizes such sessions for ill children.
The photographs are black-and-white, a concession to the sometimes changing complexions of children being treated for afflictions, such as cancer, that can leave the skin mottled or pale. Some lose their hair. To help make everyone look good, Mark Molesky, the photographer, was assisted yesterday by a makeup artist, Gindy Martin, who gave beautifying touches not only to the kids but also to some of the parents who accompanied them.
"We want the child to come through, not the disease," said Leslie Landsman, who founded the Baltimore chapter of Flashes of Hope in April and who has set up 25 such free photo sessions, with several youngsters in each. "We want to show the children how beautiful they can be."
Landsman's previous volunteer venture involved organizing Baltimore's Fish Out of Water exhibit, which raised $675,000 for youth programs in 2001.
That same year, the Flashes of Hope project was founded in Cleveland by Kip and Allison Clarke, the parents of Quinn Clarke, who was 18 months old when his cancer was diagnosed. After a year of treatment, Quinn, now 7, got better, but his little friend Mandwell in the same ward did not. The Clarkes thought it might have been nice for Mandwell's parents to have had a portrait of him, and the idea for Flashes of Hope was born.
The organization has chapters in 19 cities, with more on the way, all of them affiliated with children's hospitals and all raising money privately to pay for processing the photos and other expenses. The photographers, like everyone else involved, work for nothing.
"This is a huge part of a child's self-esteem," said Wimsatt, the care specialist, as she pointed to the photo session in what is usually the teen activities room of the university's Hospital for Children.
"So many of our children go through physical changes on top of all the emotional changes they deal with. So this shows a beautiful picture of their physical body, which in turn can change their perception of themselves."
The finished pictures also produce big smiles. When 12-year-old Jenna Sutkus, whose photo session was in late July, stopped by yesterday with her mother, Jamie, to pick up her package, she grinned as she looked through the images.
"They're good," said Jenna, who is in remission from leukemia and whose hair had grown back in time for the photo shoot. "There's only four I didn't like."
What didn't she like about them?
"My hair and my smile," Jenna replied.
This from a child, her mother said, who after losing her hair to chemotherapy wore a hat in school for 10 minutes before discarding it.
"She said she had a beautiful head," Jamie Sutkus recalled, "and that if the other kids didn't like it, she didn't care."
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