For 15 year-old Matthew Trugillo, being diagnosed with leukemia last June was the toughest thing he has had to face.
But one day during treatment, a child life specialist at Baptist Children’s Hospital recommended Trugillo apply for Pablove Shutterbugs, a five-week photography class for children and teens living with cancer. The class is taught by a professional photographer and gives participants hands-on experience through a combination of group and field work assignments.
"It gives you an escape from all the treatment," said Trugillo, who graduated from the program last month. "This gives me something to do and I get to go to my photography class. I’ll take photos and talk with my friends."
The Pablove Foundation, which funds the program, is named after Pablo Thrailkill Castelaz, who passed away at the age of six after a yearlong battle with bilateral Wilms Tumor, a rare form of childhood cancer that starts in the kidneys. After Castelaz’s passing, his parents founded the Pablove Foundation, a pediatric cancer nonprofit organization that is based in Los Angeles and aims to help kids live with cancer.
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For Trugillo’s mom Rachel, the class has given her son a new way to look at life.
"Going through chemotherapy, he’s had a lot of complications and we wanted to make sure he had something that was fun and creative to do," said Rachel Trugillo, who drove her son weekly to The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University where the classes were held.
"He’s really enjoyed it and, in fact, we tried moving our chemo sessions so that he could come to all the classes," she said.
Last year, Pablove received a grant from the Livestrong Foundation of about $100,000 to help bring programs like Shutterbugs to Miami. Every year, Livestrong seeks out programs like this one that have demonstrated success in benefiting the lives of people living with cancer and they replicate the program for one year, nationwide.
Giving kids with cancer a platform to escape and just be kids was exactly what Raul Lorenzana, 25, wanted to do when he helped kick start Shutterbugs on a national scale.
"We teach kids to develop their creative voice through the art of photography," said Lorenzana, the program manager, who helped coordinate Pablove Shutterbugs in five different cities throughout the country.
"To see them on the last day forming their own communities and friendships, it’s the most rewarding experience,” he said. “We are returning a sense of normalcy back into their lives."
After Pablove was awarded the funds, they launched a voting system online to choose what cities in the country would get the Shutterbugs program. During the voting process, Miami was selected and The Art Shack Miami, an art school in Doral, was chosen as a site partner. Kids were then chosen from different children hospitals in South Florida and were taught photography concepts like the basics of composition, lighting and perspectives throughout the five-week course.
For Kelsa Bartley, 34, a local teaching artist, training kids with cancer about photography is something she has always wanted to do.
"My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and I was studying photography in college at that time," said Kelsa, who received a bachelor’s degree in the field from Barry University. "During that time, my mom was sick and I kept thinking it would be so cool to have the opportunity to teach kids with cancer about photography because I knew that it would help them change the way they see things."
The Shutterbugs program’s fall semester ended in early November but will return for a spring session in April 2015.
"It’s a fun class and a good experience," Trugillo said. "Just take it."
For more information on the program and how to sign up, visit pablove.org/shutterbugs/