When 12-year-old Gracey Melon of Oak Park heads to the hospital, it usually means being pumped with chemo meds and feeling lousy. Her parents, Pam Grace and Bill Melon, take turns staying with her and trying to keep her spirits up.
But recently, Gracey and her parents spent a day at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital doing something totally different—being photographed by a professional photographer who volunteered his time to take portraits of sick children and their families.
Flashes of Hope, a national nonprofit organization, works with photographers, stylists and makeup artists to give families a day of lasting memories. The organization’s goal is to create uplifting portraits of children who are fighting life-threatening illnesses. Comer is the first hospital in Illinois offering this free service to families.
"We go in and have a day of Disneyland," says Barrie Dekker, Chicago chapter director for Flashes of Hope. Stylists and makeup artists spend time with each patient, helping them pick out blush and lipstick to counteract pale faces and other effects of chemotherapy. "It’s so fun to see them excited and happy and feeling good about themselves, even if it’s just for a little bit."
Prior to her photo session, Gracey sat down with a makeup artist and picked out eye shadow and lip gloss. After spending a half hour working on makeup, Gracey was ready to be photographed. Her mom and dad also had help preparing for the photos.
"I had my makeup done too. It was a real luxury," says Pam. "My husband and I switch off staying in the hospital with her and you get a little tired. To be able to sit in a chair and have someone put on my makeup for me, it was great."
When photographer Ron Gould met Gracey, she was hooked to an infusion pump that trailed along her beads of hope—beads that signify each of the many procedures she has endured as she fights acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"I’m doing the pictures of Gracey and she couldn’t have been more engaging," Gould remembers. "She’s got hundreds of beads and I’ve got shots of her holding those beads out. It’s an interesting thing, what she has been through in the past 10 years."
Pam says Gracey has always had a flair for the dramatic, but because she’s being homeschooled while she battles her illness there hasn’t been much opportunity to perform in plays like she has in the past. "She’s very into drama and she’s a very vivacious child. She’s funny and has lots of spirit, so it added a lot of opportunity for her to have fun and have a change from the hospital grind. And we’ll have those photos in our home forever."
The hospital staff knows how uplifting it can be for families to participate in the photo shoot, which is why they often delay treatments so kids can pose and primp. Showing what families like Gracey’s experience lets parents demonstrate to the community what their children are going through, as well as the strength of their children.
"They are photographing them in a family context and it will show both the impact that cancer has, this devastating impact cancer has on families," says John Cunningham, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at Comer. "But it also shows true commitment of the parents to their children at a time of phenomenal stress."
When Cunningham has watched his patients being photographed, he delighted in witnessing the moment where the children realize they’re going to be the featured event. "Usually they’re the featured event for the wrong reason—because they have cancer. In this context they’re featured because we want to know who they are as people. Their personalities really shine through."
Watching Gracey perform for the camera brought a moment of joy into her parents’ day. "Seeing how happy she was was the best part of the day. She was so upbeat," Pam says. "It really energized her, even though she was getting packed full of chemo."
Gracey agrees. "It was so weird, because it was at my hospital, but I felt like I was a movie star."
Flashes of Hope heads out to Comer once a month to photograph as many children as possible. The photographers are top-tier shooters in the area who volunteer their time to the project, as do the stylists and makeup artists. The organization hopes to expand its effort in the Chicago area—three more hospitals are on a waiting list—but has to continue fundraising before expanding its effort. Each child photographed costs about $25, mainly for the photos prepared for the families to take home.
Dekker thinks this small sum of money reaps lifelong effects. "It’s an eternal memory that celebrates the changing appearance of their children and shows their dignity, their courage and their grace. When you look at these children, you don’t see the illness, you just see a beautiful child.
"Seventy-five to 80 percent of these kids survive and they can look back and see how brave they were," Dekker says. "The ones who don’t survive, it’s an invaluable keepsakes for the family."
For more information on Flashes of Hope, visit www.flashesofhope.org.