ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Five-year-old Benny Watters was a little wary of the strange girl with a camera in tow.
So Felicia Reinhard flashed her contagious smile, played some Wii games and led a bead craft project, slowly opening a window into Benny's spirit while his disease took a temporary back seat.
The Arlington Heights teen photographed Benny getting a kiss from his two sisters. She clicked away as he basked in the sun. There was an intimate moment with his hospice nurse.
Those images will forever rank among the most prized possessions Benny's Lake Forest family could ever own. He peacefully passed away a month later in September 2010, about 33 months after he was first diagnosed with a pediatric brain stem tumor.
"Felicia has a good eye for photography, and the way she manipulated the photos, it took away the illness in a way," Benny's mom, Lisa Watters, said. "They're beautiful."
Thanks to Felicia, now 20, and the organization she started five years ago, hundreds of other families have their own photographs to treasure.
Inspiration Through Art, formerly known as the Littlest Heroes Project, is a network of photographers, artists and other volunteers who provide free programs and gifts to children with a serious illness or life-altering disability.
More than 2,000 photographers as far away as China have signed up to share children's stories through complimentary photo shoots, by far the nonprofit organization's most popular service.
Felicia facilitates the process, working with families, running an elaborate website and collecting items to send care packages to her "heroes."
Her desire to make life more joyful for others is a byproduct of Felicia's own difficult circumstances.
Born drug-addicted, premature and underweight, she's gone through life dealing with unpredictable medical issues. She doesn't know who her birth mother is.
"I only know that my mother was young, had a lot of other kids and was going through hard times," said Felicia, a 2009 graduate of Buffalo Grove High School. "She made very bad choices, but she made one amazing choice, and that was to have me and know she couldn't keep me."
Sandra and Bill Reinhard of Arlington Heights, who had fostered 15 other children, took in Felicia when she was a month old. They later decided to adopt Felicia and another little girl, Yahshira.
"We were the only family they had ever known," Sandra Reinhard said. "There was a lot of opposition because of the transracial issue, but we fought to keep them."
Felicia said growing up black in a mostly white community was a struggle at times, but she's grateful to have such loving parents who always exercise patience. It also helped when the Reinhards eventually adopted Yahshira's two younger brothers, completing their family.
"We're not a typical family, but it's normal for us," Felicia said.
Felicia attributes her interest in photography largely to her mom's scrapbooking. Though she didn't appreciate it until recently, she loves that every milestone from birthdays to the first day of class are documented in some fashion.
"It's like a record of my life, and I'll always have those scrapbooks to remember because things don't last forever," Felicia said, choking up as she reflects on her family. "My dad is in 80s, my mom in her 70s, and I'm thankful we captured those moments."
Capturing moments through photography is only part of what Inspiration Through Art does. Volunteers will go to a child's home or hospital for a free personal art session. Children either in treatment or recovery also can receive monthly packages filled with donated and handmade toys.
Felicia's favorite item at the moment is a shiny superhero cape she hopes will make children feel empowered and courageous. A couple of women saw an ad she placed on Etsy, an online marketplace for homemade goods, and made 50 of them.
The organization now is focusing on a Valentine's Day card drive, and hundreds of students from elementary schools to Concordia University in Wisconsin have come through.
With the exception of selling T-shirts and other merchandise adorned with the group's logo to fund the website, Inspiration Through Art doesn't accept monetary donations. Felicia doesn't expect to change that, preferring for donors to get creative instead. She has accepted supplies such as boxes and stamps.
"It's about making a personal connection with these kids," Felicia said. "You don't necessarily know you're making a difference if you just write a check."
Felicia, who works at the Arlington Heights Park District's before- and after-school program, hopes to one day make a living with her business, Felicia Renee Photography. Her main mission to brighten lives through art will continue as well.
"It can definitely be emotional, but I'm driven knowing how special this can be," Felicia said. "It's an honor for these people to let me into their lives."
Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com