Icing Smiles cake

The Green family of Westminster, from left, John, Mackenzie, 1, Abby, 4, and Kyle, pose with an Icing Smiles cake baked by Starry Night Bakery in Westminster for Mackenzie's first birthday party. Mackenzie was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect. (Steve Ruark / For the Baltimore Sun Media Group / August 2, 2014)

“You can’t help but smile around a good cake!” says Tracy Quisenberry. An “icing smile,” she explains, is the special grin on the face of a child tucking into a big piece of frosted fantasy.

Quisenberry is founder and executive director of Icing Smiles, a Howard County-based nonprofit whose purpose is to bring a free customized cake — and a special experience of joy — to kids suffering from life-threatening conditions.

The organization’s first cake was delivered by a volunteer baker in January 2010; six months later, the effort went viral, expanding yeastlike to today’s more than 6,000 bakers across all 50 states, Canada and the Netherlands (with more in at least a dozen countries just waiting for requests). Last Mother’s Day, Icing Smiles delivered its 5,000th cake.

Sweet inspiration

It was through the premature births of both of her children and their early health problems that Quisenberry came to understand the impact of a sick little one on a family. (Emily, 13, and Justin, 10, are now just fine.)

“The fear, heartache and irrational guilt that comes with having an ill child is simply overwhelming. I wanted them to be gifted a small piece of ‘normal’ during their journey,” the Glenelg resident writes on the organization’s website.

When Justin was ill with what was ultimately diagnosed as an immune deficiency, she left her position as Marriott’s international tax director to care for him. At home and with Duff Goldman of “Ace of Cakes” as her inspiration, she made a 3-D rubber ducky birthday cake for her son.

“Really ugly,” she recalls. “It looked like a pineapple.” 

But it began a family tradition of birthday baking and helped lead to the formation of Icing Smiles. The irony is that she hasn’t had time to do any baking, except for those celebrations, in three years.

In the mix

Now Icing Smiles bakers are “a good mix of amateurs and professionals,” so committed they’ve carried out their missions with a broken neck; after breaking a leg when hit by a car; in a friend’s kitchen for a Christmas Day cake after her own house burned down Christmas Eve; and when it took an eight-hour round-trip to make a delivery.

Two little girls, both born with heart defects and both survivors of multiple infant heart surgeries, celebrated first birthdays this year with Icing Smiles cakes, although they’ll only know it through treasured family stories and photographs.

Maddie Szynka of Essex happily demolished her piece of the sweet pink butterfly cake created by Flor Torres. The Catonsville registered nurse stepped up and into her “Sugar Angel” wings when the original baker had to go out of town.

She never refuses such a request, says this mom of a 6-year-old son: “It makes me humble and happy and appreciate more what I have. I wish I had done this sooner.”

Little Mackenzie Green of Westminster got her own mini “smash cake” matching the full-size version for family and friends  at her first birthday party. Mackenzie was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect. Starry Night Bakery, the venue that provided the cake, is known for over-the-top cakes, according to owner Shannon Clarke, hence the glittery, ruffled purple princess design — tough to match when it’s time for 4-year-old sister Abby’s sibling cake.

 “Emotionally, [illness] touches siblings as well,” notes their mom, Kyle Green. 

Under Quisenberry’s guidance, Icing Smiles offers cakes for siblings of ill children; faux cakes (but equally highly designed) for kids who can’t eat them but are able to enjoy seeing or smelling them; even repeat cakes for those with long-term conditions such as burn or accident victims.

Moments to savor

It’s impossible for Quisenberry to choose a favorite design from all those thousands of cakes, but it’s not hard to pick if she’s considering the circumstances involved.

Icing Smiles received a request for an emergency cake, meaning time for delivery was short, from Sinai Hospital pediatric intensive care unit nurse Jennifer VanGelder