February 16, 2008 | Posted by Cheryl Powell
Courtney Powers now knows that bald is beautiful -- and she's not afraid to show it. Just three months ago, the 18-year-old Ashland County native was in Nashville studying to become a hair stylist.
Now she's spending many of her days at Akron Children's Hospital, where she's receiving aggressive treatments for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
On a recent morning, Powers confidently whipped off her shoulder-length wig and exposed her smooth, hairless head while posing for pictures.
''At first, we tried to avoid pictures,'' she said. ''But this is part of who I am, so I wanted to be more open about it.''
''I call her 'my little bald angel,' '' her mother, Susan, added with a proud smile.
Each month, a team of volunteers transforms a waiting room in the oncology unit at Akron Children's Hospital into a photo studio, where a professional photographer captures the bald heads and bold spirits of children battling cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
The resulting black-and-white portraits are provided to families for free through a national nonprofit program called Flashes of Hope.
''It's a gift,'' said Jennifer Greulich, a Bath Township mother and former nurse who is co-director of the Akron chapter. ''It's a document of a child's journey. It's a document of the child's life.''
Since the Akron chapter started about a year ago, the group has provided the priceless photos to almost 80 families.
Powers and her family wanted the portraits as a lasting reminder of a challenge in her life that has made her stronger.
When she's finished with her cancer treatments, she plans to return to school -- this time, to study nursing.
''I wouldn't take it back, even though it isn't fun,'' she said of her diagnosis.
Allison Clarke started the national nonprofit group at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland seven years ago when her son, Quinn, was battling a rare pediatric cancer.
Her son survived and is now 8. But after a fellow patient and friend lost his battle with cancer, Clarke thought it would have been wonderful to have captured a portrait of the boy before he died.
The idea inspired Clarke to recruit professional photographers and stylists, who offer their services for free.
Volunteers use backdrops to create studies inside hospital waiting rooms, playrooms or hallways. If children are too sick or too weak to move, the photographers go to the patients' rooms.
Clarke said she knows from her own experience that it's too difficult for families with a sick child to set up photo shoots at professional studios.
''You have to come to them,'' Clarke said.
PHOTOS OF CHILD
After each shoot, families receive two 8-by-10 framed photos, a set of 4-by-6 proofs and a CD of all the images that can be used to make additional prints.
Families are never charged for the service or asked for donations, Clarke said.
Since the program started, the volunteer effort has expanded to 19 locations nationwide, with another 10 cities expected to open chapters by the end of the year.
This year, the organization plans to provide free photos to about 3,000 children or about a quarter of the 12,000 children diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year.
''We'd really like to reach . . . all 12,000 children every year,'' Clarke said.
CLOSE TO HOME
A photo shoot didn't come soon enough for one child.
Brian Montgomery, 8, of Rootstown, was battling an aggressive brain tumor when his mother, Sandra, decided to get a free Flashes of Hope portrait of him taken at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.
On the way to Cleveland, his mother turned around and returned home because her son became too sick.
Brian died three weeks later in April 2006, two months shy of his ninth birthday.
''Cleveland is too far when you have a sick child,'' Montgomery said.
Her experience prompted Montgomery to start a chapter of Flashes of Hope at Akron Children's Hospital.
Montgomery, the chapter director, secured the $2,500 in start-up costs from the Fairlawn Professional Firefighters Local 4164 and a hospital volunteer group known as TWIG 13 (Together With Important Goals).
''We're just glad we were able to bring it here,'' Montgomery said. ''We knew we needed this.''
STUDIO AT CHILDREN'S
About once a month, patients and their families are invited to get their pictures taken at Children's by Dr. Leroy Dierker, a photographer and former director of obstetrics at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. Dierker's teenage son, Gregory, died from leukemia 21 years ago.
A nearby laundry and snack room serves as a beauty salon, where employees from the Frizz Hair Experience in Cuyahoga Falls fix hair and makeup for patients and their families.
During her recent photo shoot, 5-year-old Chloe Seifreit of Middlebranch snuggled into the arms of her mother, Jacyln.
Chloe refused to give even the faintest glimpse of her usual giggles and grins. Steroid treatments had left her feeling particularly crabby that day.
Her mother joked that years from now, she'll be able to show Chloe the photos and remind her that she had her grumpy moments.
''Even though she's not smiling,'' her mother said, ''it's still part of the journey.''
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