Houses of Hope, built by children with cancer, on display at Columbia mall

April Huff remembers the moment she learned her then-two-year-old daughter, Athena, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was a little over a year ago, and it changed her life forever, she said.

But if one thing makes it bearable, she said, it's the Cool Kids Campaign, a Baltimore-area cancer support group designed to help children diagnosed with cancer cope with their illness, mentally and socially.

"I think it's important for kids to be able to get out and feel normal," said Huff, who takes her daughter to the Cool Kids Campaign office in Towson several times a week.

Huff and her daughter, of Millersville, were at the Columbia mall last week at the opening of a display of birdhouses — hand-made by her daughter and other children with cancer as part of the Cool Kids Campaign's Houses of Hope program.

"It's a great way for kids to tell their story," said Cool Kids Campaign director of development Kristian Sekse, of the birdhouses.

The idea of painting birdhouses originated when some unpainted birdhouses were donated to the group in 2009, according to the Cool Kids Campaign website. The houses grew to become a symbol of "expressing pediatric cancer through art," the site says.

This year, 36 children built a birdhouse as part of Houses of Hope. A dozen of those houses are now on display at the Columbia mall, with another dozen on display at both White Marsh Mall and Towson Mall.

Each house is accompanied by a card that includes a photograph and a brief biography of the artist.

Cool Kids Campaign kicked off the birdhouse exhibit Thursday, Aug. 9, with stations where mall visitors could make get-well or encouragement cards for children fighting cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sinai Hospital and University of Maryland Medical Center, all of which Cool Kids Campaign has ties to.

The painted, stickered, feathered and sparkle-glued houses were on display in the center court Thursday, Aug. 9 and later were moved to stations scattered throughout the mall.

The artists were urged to be creative, Sekse said.

"They were given almost no parameters during the creation phase, with only the loose guideline of, 'Paint whatever you like as long as it expresses who you are or your cancer journey,'" she said. "Each house has a different story and represents something different for every artist."

One of the artists, cancer survivor Richard Krause, 17, of Columbia, said he hopes visitors who see the exhibit will learn that children with cancer are "still normal" and not just a "charity case.

"It's supposed to represent you and show what you've been able to accomplish," he said of the birdhouses.

Athena Huff, now three, used pink, purple and lavender feathers, green and yellow putty, and a rainbow of sparkles on her house. It was, by far, the most colorful and textured house on display.

Athena has another 18 months left in her cancer treatment, her mother said, but Cool Kids Campaign makes the journey manageable.

"[At Cool Kids] the kids never look sick and they all smile," Huff said

The birdhouses will be on display at the mall until Sunday, Aug. 19.

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