Tigard's Alison and Jason Hicks turn tragic loss into foundation devoted to imagination and fun

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Alison and Jason Hicks started the Chelsea Hicks Foundation in honor of their daughter, who loved to play dress up.The racks of costumes at Alison Hicks’ office rise high overhead, taller than a two-story home.

“We have everything from a race car driver to Mario or Spider-Man,” Alison said, examining a few pieces of the collection. “Spider-Man’s quite popular, especially if the costume has muscles in it.”

The costumes are the lifeblood of the nonprofit organization she started with her husband Jason in 2009.

The Chelsea Hicks Foundation — named after the Hicks’ youngest daughter — helps children battling cancer through play and make-believe. TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Navaeh Flynn plays in her princess costume donated by the Chelsea Hicks Foundation as she waits in between clinic appointments at Doernbecher Childrens Hospital in April. The organization aims to put a smile on the faces of children battling cancer through fun playtimes and dress ups.

Three times a month, the Foundation makes its way to Portland’s two children’s hospitals armed with a large mobile wardrobe of brightly colored outfits.

Children in the hospitals select costumes to dress up, parading around their oncology units dressed like everything from Cinderella to Batman.

“It’s a couple hours of not being sick,” Jason said. “It’s a couple hours of not being anything, except what you want to be. They can be a fireman or a princess. They can escape for a while.”

And the kids keep the costumes, so they are able to play dress up anytime, Alison said.

“They can wear it the next day or at home or whenever they want,” Alison said.

The Hicks began the Foundation after Chelsea Hicks died of cancer in 2009 at age 5.

Chelsea was a fan of playing dress up, Alison said, and the Foundation runs a special program known as “Chelsea’s Closet” which donates the costumes to sick children.

The organization hands out between 25 and 50 costumes each trip, Jason said. Sick children have weakened immune systems, so the Foundation hands out new, never-been-worn costumes to the kids.

It’s a simple gesture, but it can mean a lot to families, Alison said.

“There was one family who had a son that got costumes from us over and over. He wore them all the time. He’d wear them out to dinner; he loved them.”

Alison said that the best experiences she had in the hospital were when her daughter was happy and playing.

“I choose to think of the times Chelsea was happy and smiling and having fun, not the times where she was being poked with needles and screaming,” Alison said. “If we’re able to give families a little bit of a break, that’s good. Hearing a child laugh and play and giggle and be silly and be a kid — that’s what I want to give back to families. If we can give that to a family and make their day a little better, then job done.”

There’s a void’

Chelsea was 3 years old when doctors found cancer in her right kidney, lymph nodes and lungs. She was diagnosed with Stage IV Wilms' tumor. She died in 2009, but during her two-year-long battle with cancer, Chelsea never stopped playing, her mother said.

“Jason’s sister brought her daughters to the hospital and they played dress up every day,” Alison said. “It was the thing that got Chelsea out of bed. She was a goofball and always dancing and singing.”

Chelsea had a way of brightening up any room, Jason said, and her infectious personality gave them the inspiration to keep going.

“That’s why we keep going, to pump a little bit of Chelsea back into that place,” Jason said. “She never walked — she skipped or floated wherever she went. And you wanted to skip with her because she was having so much fun.”

The Foundation is not only therapeutic for kids, Jason said, it helps the Hicks as well.

“When you are done with treatment, you don’t talk to the hospital or your friends. There’s a void. Not only have you lost your kid, you’ve lost your friends as well.”

That’s hard for many families, Alison said.

“Many families can’t cope (after they lose a child),” Alison said. “This gave us something to focus on and stayed connected to people.”

Plenty more where that came from

After nearly six years of work, Alison said the Foundation is now at a point where she was able to quit her day job to manage the organization full time.

“For years, our only thought was about how to keep it going (the next) year,” she said. “We have been playing catchup for so long, now we’re able to start thinking about sustainability.”

The Hicks said they see the program continuing to expand. The Chelsea Hicks Foundation works with patients in the oncology wards at Doernbecher Children's Hospital and Randall Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel, but Jason said he can envision Chelsea’s Closet making its way to hospitals in Seattle and beyond someday.

Alison said she’d also like to expand the organization to other activities, too.

“We’ve talked about adding a therapeutic play program,” she said. “We could do a superhero day. This is a therapeutic thing for kids. It’s not just physical support, but emotional support, too. We could have an Oscar night and bring in a movie booth; we want to get more into some of that.”

However it grows, Alison said, the important thing is that the children benefit.

“I want to be an organization where the focus always stays on the kids,” Alison said. “If I never get a raise, I’m good with that. My goal is not to get rich, it’s to keep our program going.”

Jason agreed.

“We get paid through this program; it’s so therapeutic for us,” he said. “It’s one of the single best things that have gotten us through the loss.”TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE -  Jason Hicks pulls costumes out of the Chelsea Hicks Foundations warehouse in Tigard. The groups mission is to help sick children have fun through play.

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