Ellicott City's Icing Smiles delivers happiness to sick kids

For The Baltimore Sun
"I have full faith that my future great-grandchildren will see cake No. 5 million delivered."

“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

Her patient Grant Jacobs was coming to the end of a three-year struggle with cancer. She knew the 20-year-old’s favorite things were his guitar and sweet treats; everyone expected to see a sheet cake with a picture of a guitar on it. But the “cake engineer,” Icing Smiles volunteer David Geaney of Clarksville, one of the organization’s first volunteer bakers, surprised them with a life-size metallic purple Ibanez guitar identical to the one Grant received from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, complete with spaghetti strings.

“That can’t be cake! How can it be cake? I can’t believe this is happening to me!” VanGelder recalls him saying. “Grant was still eating his cake and sharing it with everyone who walked into his room until the very moment he couldn’t.”

“He was so happy, the biggest smiles ever!” says Grant’s mother, Vania Jacobs. “He knew he was dying. This meant the world to him. The smiles were as rare as his cancer. ... That day was precious and will never be forgotten.”

Like hotcakes

Stats roll from Quisenberry’s tongue like fondant from a rolling pin: typically 50 cake requests per week, five from Maryland. She recently calculated that 650 hours — again, all volunteer — are chalked up weekly in administration alone.

In fact, the volunteers she needs now are not bakers but folks with organizational skills, attorneys, graphic designers, techies and accountants like her.

Icing Smiles’ leadership team members, volunteers based across the country — an operations manager in Chicago, a development manager in Memphis, a financial manager in Dallas and an IT maven in Philadelphia — work together single-mindedly despite having never met in person. They’re all in pursuit of the same goal.

“Every time one of these cakes is walked through a hospital, visitors that see these kids are a bit happier. Social workers who serve these kids are a bit happier. Staff, doctors and nurses are a bit happier. Can you imagine the intangible impact on the kids surrounded by happier people?” the executive director said in a presentation at the organization’s 2013 Magic of a Smile Gala.

Today, she believes, a capable board of directors with executive and administrative team volunteers are able to run the show, including the annual Buttercream Ball fundraiser at Savage Mill, scheduled for Feb. 28, 2015.

“I have full faith that my future great-grandchildren will see cake No. 5 million delivered. Then again, at the pace we are going, I may just see cake No. 5 million delivered,” she blogs. She’s certainly not severing any ties, but Quisenberry has taken a few part-time steps back to the world of accounting.

She may not be able to turn lemons into lemonade, but she has come up with a way to pour a glassful for those burdened by more than their share of lemons. And it tastes like cake.  

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