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Volunteers Spread Joy of Flashes of Hope

Carrie Gowans and Jori Appleberry help families with children with cancer or chronic illnesses enjoy a free photo shoot with the nonprofit Flashes of Hope.

Jori Appleberry is a hair stylist by trade but a volunteer at heart. When a new client came to her for a hair appointment at hair salon, the women hit it off and a friendship and volunteer partnership was formed.

Appleberry’s client that day was Carrie Gowans, Chicago chapter director for Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit that gives families with children who have cancer or who are chronically ill, the opportunity to enjoy a fun photo shoot. The families get to relax and have fun and later receive free, professionally taken photos.

“It’s a keepsake for the family,” Gowans said. “We hope it’s not a remembrance. We hope the kids get better. … The photos mean so much for the families.”

A mission of hope

Flashes of Hope’s mission is: Photographing every child with cancer until every child is cured. The photos provide a break from the illness and allow families and children to see themselves in a different light.

Gowans first heard of Flashes of Hope while living in Cleveland. The organization was founded there 11 years ago. When Gowans moved to Glen Ellyn, there was an opportunity to start a chapter in the Chicago area.

The first hospital the nonprofit worked with was the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. Since launching in Chicago in May 2008 other hospitals have started participating, including Cadence Health-Central DuPage Hospital, which started its program in June.

Flashes of Hope works with hospital social workers to identify families who would benefit from the free photo shoot. Families are then invited to participate. Volunteers, including a photographer, photographer’s assistant and make up artists, work with children and families making the photo shoot a fun experience.

Volunteering from experience

Appleberry was quick to get involved once she heard about the nonprofit. She grew up participating in charity events. She participated in the three-day breast cancer walk several times. And, her grandfather had cancer. She helped care for him through his illness.

The first time Appleberry went to a photo shoot with Gowans, she was there to do the makeup, but Gowans realized the volunteer had more potential. That was three years ago, and Appleberry began helping coordinate the events.

“She has the natural ability to make people feel comfortable,” Gowans said of her volunteer Appleberry.

The personal experience of having a family member with cancer gave the work added importance, Appleberry said.

“I knew the family side of it. We have to be able to feel the families out,” Appleberry said. “… What makes me want to continue to do this for families is this is the bright part of their month. They get so excited that they get to do this.”

A brief respite from illness

Sometimes specialists at the hospitals tell the volunteers with Flashes of Hope that it’s the first time in months a child has actually smiled, the women said. For many families, it also takes their minds off briefly from dealing with the illness.

Roughly 350 people volunteer throughout the year, including photographers, make up artists and assistants, Gowans said. Some photographers would volunteer every month if it were possible. Many do volunteer to give back repeatedly.

The next event is scheduled for Sept. 11 at Central DuPage Hospital, Gowans said. Typically, eight to 12 families participate on the day of the shoot. Then four to six weeks later the photos arrive in the mail.

The women enjoy helping the families have a fun experience, because it’s an upbeat event, they said. “It’s a glimmer of hope during a hospital stay.”

Learn more about Flashes of Hope.

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