Photographs of children often depict the many firsts they will undergo in their lives—steps, teeth, parties, holidays, dances. Many times during their lives they will look at those documents of their childhood milestones with joy or embarrassment. Such photos chronicle the inexorable march toward adulthood.
But for some families, that march is not a given. A child’s first birthday may also be his or her last, giving a whole new meaning to a photograph. In such cases, every snapshot is not of a child growing up, but saying goodbye. The mission of the Tiny Sparrow Foundation is built on this heartbreaking knowledge.
The organization, in Frisco, Tex., enlists professional photographers as volunteers to take pictures of families with terminally-ill children.
Lidia Boicu, Tiny Sparrow’s founder and executive director, is a professional photographer who overcame breast cancer. In 2009, inspired to help others after her ordeal, Ms. Boicu came across a blog by the mother of a 5-year-old girl with brain cancer, and flew to Arizona to meet the girl and her family. After taking pictures of the family, Ms. Boicu posted the images on her own blog, drawing numerous responses. Thus, the idea for Tiny Sparrow hatched.
Families nationwide can apply for the services through the organization’s Web site. They must provide a note from a doctor or social worker verifying the terminal condition of a child.
Susan Posterro, Tiny Sparrow’s creative director and family liaison, says that through social-media sites such as Facebook, the group has been able to build a network of photographers. Before the volunteers can participate, they must pass muster with a number of veteran photographers who evaluate technical skills and the ability to handle delicate situations. Tiny Sparrow’s budget consists entirely of donations from individuals; its 2010 revenue was $42,000. The group hopes to hire a researcher and proposal writer to find additional sources of money for services such as providing albums for families and developing a network of photographers in every state. The group now operates only in Texas.
Although Tiny Sparrow’s work can literally involve witnessing a child’s dying breath, Ms. Posterro sees the photographs as life-affirming and a much-needed respite for the families.
“What their family is left with is an everlasting and truly priceless gift of not what their child looked like, but who they truly were,” she says. “While many kids are fighting a fight, that’s not what you see in the images. Before a child passes, the experience gives the family a moment of normalcy, a moment of hope.”
Here, a family from Singapore, visiting Texas to seek treatment for their 10-year-old daughter who has bone cancer, play in the leaves.