Flashes of Hope helps ill kids focus on good things - Houston Chronicle

January 12, 2009  |  Posted by Carolyn Feibel

Flashes of Hope helps ill kids focus on good things - Young patients treated to photo shoots that embrace physical changes
By: Carolyn Feibel

The children arrived for their portraits in wheelchairs or pulling IV poles. Some huddled in hospital gowns. Most had recently lost their hair to chemotherapy.

No matter. A little makeup, a lot of clicks and flashes, and these patients at Texas Children’s Hospital emerged as glamorous stars of their own professional photo shoots.

Glamour, of course, is a flexible term. Alicia, 6, wore Tinker Bell slippers and lip gloss. Fourth-grader Ben posed formally with his mother, who tickled him to get a bigger smile. Jonathan, a 17-year-old with leukemia, chose irony: he had the stylist create a fake black eye, then struck some boxing poses.

The shoot was organized by Flashes of Hope, a national nonprofit that works with volunteer photographers in 30 cities to create free portraits for children fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. The group’s mission is to help children feel better about their illnesses and accept " even celebrate " their changing appearances, at whatever stage of treatment or recovery they may find themselves. Houston is the only city with two chapters; the other is affiliated with M.D. Anderson.

Flashes of Hope taps into a network of professional photographers, most affiliated with The American Society of Media Photographers. Professional makeup artists also donate their time. Participating children and their families receive two enlarged black-and-white portraits and a CD of images, all for free.

“It’s a very special gift,” said Houston photographer Sofia van der Dys, after volunteering for her first session. “They’ll have a happy moment even if it’s just five minutes, given all the needles and stuff that happens here. Or if something should happen to the child, they’ll have it forever.”

Many of the parents agreed that when a child is critically ill, taking time out to primp, let alone visit a studio photographer, is almost impossible. Children may be hospitalized for months at a time and often miss their school portraits.

“We don’t have time in our day-to-day life to do this,” said Ben’s mother, Susan Campbell. “When we come to the hospital, we usually just hide away in our room and get through the chemotherapy.”

Ben, 9, was a typical kid in Katy, playing piano and video games, when doctors discovered a tumor on his thigh bone last summer. He is recovering from leg reconstruction and doing more chemotherapy. Campbell has been documenting her son’s “journey” through cancer, just as she would document his school and sports events. Flashes of Hope seems to have a similar philosophy about pediatric illness, she said. It teaches kids that they have dignity and grace even when ill.

“This is an event that does need to be remembered, and remembered in a beautiful way,” Campbell said. “It adds a new perspective to it, a new beauty.”

Carlos Olivero saw the photo session as a celebration for his 3-year-old grandson, Esteban Leal.

“Today was the last dose of his last treatment,” he said. “So it was good to have the pictures taken today.”

Olivero cradled his grandson tenderly during the shoot. After months of chemotherapy, the child is in remission.

“When we see the pictures, we’ll remember mainly the good things,” Olivero said. “For me, it’s like seeing him born again, with health.”

The photo shoot is a wonderful distraction and a self-esteem boost for children who have unwillingly watched their bodies change, suffer and heal, said Amy Curry, a child life specialist who works on the oncology floor.

“I love the transformation you see,” agreed Kristine H. Jarosz, who co-founded the chapter at Texas Children’s last year. “Oftentimes they’re very sick and they don’t have that sparkle,” she said. But they soon get caught up in the posing process, and smiles, giggles and “real joy” bubble forth.

Flashes of Hope has provided photos for about 3,000 children annually since its founding in Cleveland in 2001.

“It’s something that pulls at my heartstrings because it might be the only portrait they have or maybe the last portrait they have,” van der Dys said.

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