As students and their parents go back-to-school shopping this month at Towson Town Center, Chris Federico, president and co-founder of the Cool Kids Campaign, hopes a set of hand-painted birdhouses on display at the mall will remind shoppers that many cancer patients are kids as well.
Creating the birdhouses, and displaying them for all to see, was an opportunity for the child patients, "to share their experience and their feelings, if not verbally, then through the painting and art," said Federico at a kick-event for the Houses of Hope program on Wednesday, Aug. 8, at the mall.
The Cool Kids Campaign, a local charity that works to improve the quality of life for pediatric cancer patients, has organized the simultaneous displays of hand-painted birdhouses from pediatric cancer patients and survivors in three malls —— Towson, White Marsh and Columbia.
Federico said the project "brings awareness to the community, to let them know these kids are kids."
"This is a way for them to explore the challenges they have been through during their journey," he said.
Of the dozen birdhouses displayed throughout the Towson mall, each is unique in its theme. Part of the display includes a brief explanation of the work from the artists' perspective.
A teenager, for instance, painted the front of her bird house in Victorian style — because she felt older than she was. Meanwhile, two friends of a girl who died of cancer painted another in beach theme.
A boy and a girl who met in elementary school painted one together — with one half covered in question marks from the boy who was still undergoing treatment and the other half covered in exclamation points from the girl whose treatment was finished.
Several local families took part in the project.
Allison Kelly, 6, of Lutherville, painted a birdhouse for the program that featured the Cool Kids slogan "Cancer Fears Me."
Her mother, Meredith Kelly, said the family already had been involved with Cool Kids Campaign for three years before Allison's leukemia diagnosis last April. Kelly ran a half-marathon for the charity with a friend — in honor of her husband, Frank, who is a cancer survivor. After her daughter was diagnosed, she got a call from Federico.
"We're here," he told her. "We want to support you guys."
"It was special," Kelly recalled.
Throughout Allison's treatment, the most intensive portion of which ended in January, Kelly said art was "very therapeutic in her journey."
"The creativity helps her express her emotions, and I think that's what the project was for her," Kelly said.
Diane D'Aiutolo Collins of Homeland said her twin daughters, Tessa and Cara, have used art as a tool as well. The first day she brought the girls to Cool Kids, they were so captivated by the facility and its craft projects that Collins couldn't get them to leave.
Cara, 10, is currently being treated for leukemia and is also living with Down syndrome, and the birdhouse was a collaborative effort between the two sisters.
Tessa suggested that on top of the birdhouse, the two sisters make a heart out of their interlocking handprints, and each painted panels of the birdhouse themselves.
"They're both very creative," said the girls' mom. "This was all them, even down to the picture."
At the event Wednesday, Collins said she enjoyed seeing the other children's stories and learning about them through their birdhouses. At Cool Kids events, she said, families have the opportunity to connect in a way that they can't as faces passing in the halls of a clinic.
"Even though you know there are other people going through what your child is going through, there is no time to truly communicate with other families," she said. "You're too busy surviving."
Likewise, for Alycia Steinberg, a Towson resident whose daughter, Avey, 3, is in the maintenance phase of her leukemia treatment, Cool Kids events like the birdhouse painting workshop are opportunities to meet other mothers while her daughter can simply be a kid again.
"It's still a stressful experience to be going to the clinic and getting treatment, so it's nice to have something outside of that in a much more relaxed environment," she said.
For Steinberg, the birdhouse event and painting workshops also provided what she hopes is a glimpse into Avey's future.
"It's really heartening to see those older kids who are doing great now, with plans for college and sports in high school," she said. "A lot of them have been survivors for a long time. All those kinds of things are everything you want for your child."
The Cool Kids Campaign's Houses of Hope will be on display throughout Towson Town Center through Aug. 19.