Young artists explore 'Big Feelings' to fight children's cancer

Artist Jodie Johnson talks with club members about using art to express an array of feelings.

When she told her parents that she wanted to form a club, seven-year-old Elizabeth Kikel might have been thinking about clubhouses. But, because her parents said that a club had to be something with a true purpose—“a thing you care about together”—Elizabeth ultimately created something that will have wide-reaching and long-lasting impact.

The We Hate Cancer Club was founded in the summer of 2015 by a group of Cleveland Heights kids ranging from in age from preschoolers to middle-schoolers. The criteria for membership are specific: (1) members must be kids; and (2) members must hate cancer.   

A few adults have asked to become members; the kids in charge thoughtfully rejected this idea. “There are a lot of things for adults,” Elizabeth said, “not for kids.” Parents are allowed to help with projects and sit nearby during club meetings, which have taken place at members’ homes and at Phoenix Coffee on Lee Road.

Elizabeth and her friend, Avery Craft, came up with the club’s name. There was parental concern about the use of the word “hate,” but ultimately the adults agreed that cancer is something that it’s OK to hate. Malcolm MacFarland, a five-year-old club member, said, "I like hating cancer because it's dumb."

Most of the We Hate Cancer Club members became familiar with the devastation caused by cancer when their friend and playmate, Rebecca Meyer, became sick, and died from a brain tumor in June 2014. Because they have wrestled with their own grief and the incurability of some sickness, these kids are well-versed in topics that most adults avoid.  

Avery explained that, as she gets older, it’s easier “to understand how it happened in her body.” Avery remembers trying to understand what made Rebecca sick: “I remember my teacher in kindergarten telling me not to push her down [on the playground]—she was back from the hospital—because of her brain tumor.” 

Families in Cleveland Heights rallied around Rebecca and her family, and developed their own ways of coping with the sadness and confusion caused by childhood cancer. Avery and Elizabeth have been able to continue to care about Rebecca, and they have put their understanding about cancer to great use for the betterment of the world around them. “There’s different kinds of cancer. Brain cancer is one of many, many, many kinds of cancer,” said Avery. “The more we make money, the more medicine they can make, so it won’t exist any more.”

With that in mind, the girls raised more than $170 with an occasional lemonade stand this past summer, participating in a national effort called Alex’s Lemonade Stand. “We had to tell people that it’s for cancer research,” said Avery. Upon hearing that, many customers paid extra. 

Parents of club members feel that great healing can come when parents support children's ideas in remembering, honoring and taking action on behalf of a loved one. Rather than feeling passive and overwhelmed by grief, the child is able to impact the surrounding world, feeling understood and feeling a sense of power in the ability to create change. 

It is this foundation—the support of empathetic parents—that led the We Hate Cancer Club to its latest endeavor, The Big Feelings art exhibit and sale. In September, the club convened under the guidance of local artist Jodie Johnson, who walked the kids through the creation of art representing any feelings they wanted to depict. In the weeks that followed, the kids titled and described their works for an October exhibit at Phoenix Coffee on Lee Road. 

The goal of The Big Feelings exhibit is to increase awareness about, and raise funds for, children’s cancer. “Making art is a way to bring the kids together, to connect and express their grief,” said Johnson. “It makes them feel better to know they are raising funds to fight cancer by selling their art.” The process of making and selling art, she noted, “is strengthening for them.” 

There is an additional goal of helping kids know that it’s OK to have a wide range of feelings and to express those feelings through different methods—creating art, talking with a loved one, and spending time with someone who understands.

Elizabeth’s mom, Kate Kikel, mentioned how helpful the animated movie “Inside Out” has been for kids, showing how feelings impact how we do things and how we remember things, as well as how feelings work together on many levels. She said she is all for “anything we can do to give kids more vocabulary to express what they are thinking and feeling.”

Children’s cancer research currently receives only 4 percent of the federal dollars allocated to cancer research as a whole. “Ninety-six percent is a lot compared to 4 percent,” said Elizabeth, trying to demonstrate with her hands what more-balanced funding would look like. “I hope we will raise a lot of money for children’s cancer research, because Rebecca was a child.” 

The exhibit will open on Tuesday, Oct. 6., 5:30–7 p.m., and the work will be on display throughout the month of October. “There is a suggested donation of $20 per piece,” said Johnson, “but any amount will be accepted and appreciated.”

Donations can also be made online at

Shari Nacson

Mostly a mom, Shari Nacson is also a freelance editor and clinical social worker who makes her home in Cleveland Heights. She also serves nationally as the child development specialist at Safe and Sound Schools ( Nacson is inspired by kids and adults who build connection through kindness.

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Volume 8, Issue 10, Posted 11:48 AM, 09.29.2015