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Flashes of Hope brightens lives of children fighting cancer

Young cancer patient poses in black and white portrait
Flashes of Hope provides free professional photos for the parents of children facing life-threatening illnesses. Pictured: Ava by Gary Yasaki.

Five-year-old Makayla Corrigan giggles, and a camera flash lights up the room.

"No smiling!" the photographer teases. "And definitely don't laugh at me!"

She laughs louder, and he snaps picture after picture of her in various poses: a silly one with her tongue sticking out, a sweet one kissing her dad's cheek, and a more reflective one with her hand under her chin.

Behind her, an IV pole stands forgotten as Makayla checks out her blue eye shadow in the mirror. She may be battling leukemia, but for this half an hour, she feels like a princess.

That's the purpose of Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides free professional photo shoots for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Since the Akron chapter was founded in 2006, more than 400 children like Makayla have experienced the joy of being styled and photographed.

A $2,000 grant from the Millennium Fund for Children helped make the program possible last year.

Before every shoot, Flashes of Hope transforms the oncology floor of Akron Children's Hospital into a professional studio with lights and colorful backdrops. Volunteer stylists apply bright eye makeup and lip gloss, smooth stray hairs, and even spruce up the kids' parents before they step in front of the camera.

The goal: to change the way children with cancer see themselves, and to document their journey.

"These photos are precious because it shows their fight," said chapter co-director Sandra Montgomery. "For children who make it through, it's a memory of how strong they were. For children who don't, it is an incredible memory for the family."

Montgomery knows the importance of memories. She was on her way to Cleveland with her 8-year-old son, Brian, to have his picture taken with Flashes of Hope when he got sick in the car. The next day, he was transferred to hospice care, where he passed away from a brain tumor. "We never made it," she said. "That's why it was so important to bring the program to Akron."

Families who participate in Flashes of Hope receive a free portfolio package of all the photos taken. The pictures are printed in black and white to help the children look vivid and healthy.

Photographer shoots photo of toddler girl
Aaron Patterson from Visualizations Photography takes photos of 10-month-old Aerabella Adams and her parents at Akron Children's Hospital. Aaron and his wife, Joanna, volunteer their photography skills to help local families document their journey with cancer.

For parents like Christine Ratliff, the photo shoot is an opportunity to take a break from the stress and worry of being in a hospital. Her 5-year-old son, Ian, has a blood clot disorder and has to stay at the hospital twice a year for treatment.

At their most recent stay in November, Flashes of Hope took pictures of Ian posing with Dixie, a chocolate lab that visits children in the hospital.

"It was a lot of fun seeing Ian happy and excited," Ratliff said. She added that she plans to make copies of the photos and give them as Christmas gifts.

While not all children smile as easily as Ian, photographers Aaron and Joanna Patterson find joy in helping kids shed their worry and sadness during the shoots. They often make goofy faces and jokes, clicking the shutter when the kids' smiles are at their widest.

In one of Aaron's favorite shoots, he photographed a 4-year-old girl holding up a picture of her "boyfriend," Justin Bieber, and riding her bike down the hospital hallway.

"It makes us happy to give the kids this experience," he said. "Seeing them smile, or hugging their parents, is just very special."

Stylists and photographers will even don scrubs and move their "studio" to the hospital rooms of children who are not able to come to them. Many of these children are in the midst of a bone marrow transplant or are in palliative care.

"Sometimes you have children who can't respond to you or can't move," Montgomery said. "But our photographers understand and are still able to capture that child for who they are."

Delivering the finished pictures is often an emotional experience, she said.

"When you hand the photos to a family, the parents break down," Montgomery said. "I know we've taken some of the last photos of kids. It is just indescribable."

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