Life is a journey: Some travel with cancer

Peace, grace, gratitude, optimism. Those are not the words that immediately come to mind when the subject of cancer in children is raised.

But they are at the heart of a photographic exhibition, Life Within the Journey — Beyond Diagnosis, a Portrait of What Endures, which opens with a reception Friday, April 8, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Wilton Library. The reception is free with refreshments by Barcelona catering.

The exhibition, which has traveled the past year throughout Connecticut, including the Capitol, is making its last stop in Wilton. It is sponsored by Wilton-based Circle of Care, the nonprofit organization that offers emotional and financial assistance to families facing a diagnosis of childhood cancer.

This is not a bleak exhibition. It is intended as quite the opposite. It began as a simple project presented by photographer Jeanna Shepard, a former Circle of Care board member who wanted to take portrait photos of children being treated at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven.

“I wanted it to be upbeat … and show these kids have their own character,” she told The Bulletin last week. “They’re still kids.”

Everyone on the project learned as it evolved. “The most natural day to do it was on their day of treatment,” said Shepard, who lives in New Canaan. She shot the portraits in black and white and it became obvious what she had was more than a one-off exhibition. That’s when Jeff Salguero, husband of Circle of Care co-founder Liz Salguero, came in. A branding and advertising executive, he brought a group together and came up with the concept “there’s life within the journey.”

Brief stories, commentaries, sometimes just a quote were added to each photo, along with those words — a different, defining word for each young person.

“From there, we just all worked together … and made it a traveling awareness project,” Shepard said.

The project raises awareness about both childhood cancer and Circle of Care. Jeff Salguero said he took an early retirement last year, and “in my temporary retirement I dedicated time to Circle of Care and getting the word out and seeing the brand more. Part of that exercise was what is our tone, what is our voice.”

When this project came along, “it fleshed that out,” he said. “We are very clear with who we are and who and how we help.

“Circle of Care is about life within the journey. … These pictures are about life and the journey, not IV poles, bald heads and feeling sorry for them. These are kids who want to be kids. When you look at their faces and expressions, these words pop out. Their attitude — pluck — when you look at that picture of that girl, it just fits.

“Finding the word, writing about them, it helped us flesh out what our voice is as well. It’s very important the exhibition be relevant to those with cancer, parents, someone who has gone through it, someone who has not gone through it.”

The photos

The exhibition that opens next week will include 22 photos. All were taken at Smilow during March, April and May of 2015. A hospital liaison alerted parents of the plan to take photos and Shepard and her team arrived with a stylist to help with hair and makeup.

“I think in the beginning a couple were a little wary, but because we had hair and makeup, the kids feel so special when they have that done,” she said.

Shepard’s business partner Christine Simmons accompanied her, helping to entertain the participants, who ranged in age from 18 months to 22 years old. They were boys and girls, different ethnicities, dealing with different types of cancer.

The project grew even larger as a permanent installation was established at the hospital with a dozen rotating photos on display. Because a cancer diagnosis can be so isolating and overwhelming, the photos are intended to offer emotional support to families.

“Now when they go into Yale and the see other kids and families, there is courage and bravery,” Shepard said. “There is going to be doubt, but there is a community of people. You’re going to see there’s life within the journey.”

Last week, Shepard took another round of photos at Smilow to add to those already on display.

Another highlight of the yearlong tour that began in New Canaan last April was a stop March 21 at the Capitol building in Hartford, arranged by state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. (D-12).

“These are not photographs that you simply look at. This exhibit is something that you experience,” Kennedy said in a press release. “As a young boy I was diagnosed with childhood cancer and needed to have my leg amputated to survive. I am so glad that the Circle of Care has produced this photo exhibit that shows pediatric cancer patients not as sickly, sympathetic subjects but as brave young people who have not lost themselves to illness, but remain vibrant individuals in spite of their diagnoses.”

The exhibition at Wilton Library runs through Tuesday, April 26.