Little Halle Gardner sits on her mother's lap, flashing a smile that overshadows the big purple bow on the side of her head.
The festive ornament is attached to a matching purple hairband for a reason: the pretty 2-year-old, named for actress Halle Berry, has no hair to hold the bow in place. It is just starting to grow back after months and months of chemotherapy to treat the sarcoma that has turned her young life and that of her family upside down.
The good news is that Halle is finally starting to feel better again. And she knows just what to do when professional photographer CJ Shelker prepares to snap another shot on the second floor of All Children's Outpatient Care Center.
"Cheeeeeese," Halle blurts out, joined enthusiastically by 4-year-old sister Telan as the girls' mom, Cynthill, looks into the lens with a smile that speaks volumes of her relief and happiness. It's a moment frozen in time to treasure and hopefully to celebrate for years to come.
A moment created by the national organization known as Flashes of Hope, which goes from hospital to hospital taking high-end, portrait-session photos of pediatric patients facing the toughest of challenges amid life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses.
A moment orchestrated on this recent morning at All Children's by the organization's Tampa Bay chapter - a family endeavor that gives hundreds of other families a brief reprieve from turmoil, pain or worry, and brings a positive memory into sharp focus.
For Cynthill, today's session has special meaning. A year earlier, Halle was photographed by Flashes of Hope when she was very sick and struggling through a scary time. Those pictures captured a lasting image of love and the spirit of a brave, beautiful baby girl. And even amid the uncertainty, Cynthill and her husband found that the photo session provided a source of comfort. "It did, absolutely," she says.
Now, she wanted to come back for a second sitting to show Halle in a new light.
"This will be more of a picture of triumph, to show her happiness this time and that she's done well," Cynthill says.
Marc Silbiger, a co-director of the local Flashes of Hope, and wife Susan are more than happy to oblige with another portrait session. Marc, a retired brokerage executive who divides his time between Tampa and Cleveland, shares the director duties with daughter Dana Hudepohl as well as her friend, Michele Gibson. Dana, a national magazine freelance writer, isn't along for this day's visit to the hospital. But Susan, has come to organize the photo-session paperwork and mandatory releases.
And two more key volunteers are on hand. Tampa cosmetologist Brooke Curtis will provide professional make-overs for any girls or moms who want to look their best. And CJ, who has photographed music celebrities and fine art images all over the world, will capture the images as lasting keepsakes.
It doesn't take long for the magic of Flashes to take hold. Another patient, 14-year-old James Auxier, has arrived with his mother, Nancy. He is in the midst of chemotherapy treatments for a brain tumor.
James was feeling well enough to ride his bike five weeks earlier, but fell off and suffered a skull fracture. Still, he's been keeping a positive attitude and both mother and son are looking forward to the photo shoot and having some top-quality pictures to share with his Marine Corp older siblings, David and Jennifer. "This is just awesome," Nancy says after Shelker takes a round of photos. "It's just so nice that they do this for the families - it means so much."
Off to the side, Marc beams at the sight. He seems to derive as much enjoyment in providing the service as the patients and parents who benefit from it. The Tampa Bay chapter has now photographed nearly 800 children since being started in 2007 by local photographer Joseph Gamble. Marc and Dana succeeded Gamble in 2009 after starting out as volunteers. But there's more to the story than that.
The national Flashes of Hope Program was founded in 2001 by a former Cleveland television producer and reporter, Allison Clark. She and husband Kip wanted to make a difference after their son underwent successful treatment for cancer. Their vision led to the first Flashes of Hope photo shoot at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland ,with an ambitious mission to help children suffering from life-threatening illnesses see themselves in a more positive light and to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
"There are about 12,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States," Marc says. "And this year, Flashes of Hope is going to photograph 7,000 of them. Our goal is to do photo shoots of every kid suffering from cancer, all around the country, until pediatric cancer is cured."
Marc was instantly drawn to the organization after retiring in 2008. "I was having some difficulty adjusting," he recalls. "I thought, 'What am I going to do - play golf all the time? That seemed ridiculous. I really wanted to do something meaningful."
Dana had read about Flashes of Hope in a People magazine article and that got the ball rolling - leading them to the local organization that is now a driving force in their lives, and touching the lives of so many others. Since taking over as chapter directors in '09, they've done more than 800 shoots at All Children's and other locations around the area. Gamble, who originated the local chapter, now volunteers as a photographer.
"The bottom line is it gives the family an unforgettable experience," Marc says. "The family is going through incredible trauma. It's a very depressing time. But sitting in on a photo shoot, you see the joy come back to their faces - the mother, the father, brothers, sisters and patient. It's just irreplaceable."
Tampa Bay's Flashes of Hope crew visits All Children's Hospital once a month, taking new shots and delivering the portrait keepsakes for patients and families. With help from nurses and members of the Child Life department, the Flashes staff never has any shortage of subjects to photograph - often doing as many as 16 sessions on a visit, compared to the early years of 4-5. The All Children's Foundation helps fund the chapter, which utilizes a cadre of top area photographers volunteering to take the pictures. The Beach Branch of the All Children's Guild also supports the endeavor through their Legacy Fund.
"Once we tell them our story, they want to be involved," Marc says. "We have some photographers who work once a year, a couple who work twice a year. But we never have trouble getting photographers."
Dana savors the chance to do work together as a family unit. "It's very special coming together with my mom and dad to help other families who are just like us," she says. But more than anything, she takes heart in being able to bring Flashes to so many kids and adults in need of an emotional lift.
"It hits me how much these photo sessions mean to the families when we get letters or emails from the parents telling us how much they treasure the pictures or when a crying toddler who's been through a tough day transforms into a giggling ham in front of the camera," she adds. "In these moments, I feel so much satisfaction that we are able to provide joy during such difficult times."
One of the highlights on the latest visit comes while making the rounds on the unit for hematology and cancer patients. An 11-year-old girl, Michelle, has lost her hair due to chemo treatments and is getting ready for a bone marrow transplant in the coming weeks. Before getting ill, Michelle had done some fashion modeling and aspires to be a professional model when she grows up. With Brooke's help, Maria gets a complete makeover, including a long black wig. She looks and feels great for the photo. "I'm so excited for her," says her mother, Maria. "This helps her not think about being sick."
With the flash of a camera, another moment of hope is savored, another priceless memory preserved.