Young artists fight childhood cancer

Devin Johnson, 3, Noelle Johnson, 5, and Ruthie McFarland, 7 (from left), creating art for the Big Feelings show. Photo by Jodie Johnson.

On Oct. 6, a nontraditional art show opened at Phoenix Coffee on Lee Road. It drew a special crowd of artists, surrounded by family, friends, and customers eager to purchase pieces. Of the 20 pieces in the collection, 11 sold during the exhibit’s opening night. 

The Big Feelings exhibit is the creation of the We Hate Cancer Club, which was founded this past summer by a group of Cleveland Heights kids ranging in age from preschoolers to middle-schoolers. The goal of the exhibit is to increase awareness about, and raise funds for, children’s cancer.

There are specific membership criteria for the club: (1) members must be kids; and (2) members must hate cancer. Parents are allowed to help with projects, but membership is strictly for kids. “There are a lot of things for adults,” seven-year-old founder Elizabeth Kikel said, “not for kids.”

Most of the We Hate Cancer Club members became familiar with the devastation caused by cancer when Rebecca Meyer, their friend and playmate, became sick and subsequently died from a brain tumor.

Most of the kids’ families had known each other since they first became parents, originally attending Baby & Me playgroups at Family Connections and then maintaining the group as the kids “aged-out” of the offering. Said Ellen Barrett, Family Connections’ family support specialist, “It is fitting to see these kids create community. The parents have passed on a way to build relationships and reduce isolation through friendship.” Barrett noted that the kids took it a step further: “In addition to being a support system for each other, they took action.”

Hosting occasional lemonade stands in the summer, Elizabeth and her friend Avery Craft raised more than $233 as part of a national effort called Alex’s Lemonade Stand. This was a way for them to do something active to help others, while connecting in mutual bereavement. Barrett underscored what the parents seemed to intuitively know: “Giving kids a voice, letting them know they can help, and allowing them to feel a little more in control—this provides a way to work through the scary, strange, and unfamiliar feelings they face.”

The children’s artwork is fully their own, with an emotive quality emanating through the pigments, brushstrokes and resistance created by using oil pastels along with watercolors. Each piece is signed by the artist and is accompanied by the piece’s title and description. It is the descriptions—in the children’s own words—that pull at heartstrings, reminding viewers of the harsh reality these children have navigated in the time that has passed since their friend and playmate became incurably sick. 

Local artist Jodie Johnson walked the kids through the creation of art that represented any feelings they wanted to depict. “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.”  

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.” 

In its first week, the exhibit raised more than $650, which goes directly to St. Baldrick’s, the nation’s primary nonprofit that raises money for childhood cancer research. Upon seeing her artwork displayed, five-year-old Noelle Johnson exclaimed, “I am hoping they [people] would like it and if they would want to have it at their house!” Noelle’s smile was contagious when she learned that someone bought her piece, Flower Queen

Look for the artwork next time you stop in to Phoenix Coffee on Lee Road. Be inspired by something created by kids, for kids. And consider making a donation to cheer on this meaningful work. Donations can also be made online at

Shari Nacson

Mostly a mom, Shari Nacson is 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 & Sound Schools ( She is inspired by kids and adults who build connection through kindness.

Read More on Non-Profit & Groups
Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 11:55 AM, 10.30.2015