Once a month, a cheery red trailer with the words “Chelsea’s Closet” arrives at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Southwest Portland.
A rolling closet stuffed with brand new costumes is unloaded and uncovered by red-shirted volunteers. There must be a little magic in that closet, too, because it soon transports children facing serious illness to an imaginary land of pirates, princesses and superheroes.
Three-year-old Jesse is the first in line on this day. After careful consideration, he chooses a knight’s helmet to cover his little head, left bald from treatment. He adds a mighty sword and a cape, and proclaims himself a “super kid.” Who could argue?
Then there’s two-year-old Charlie, soon to be ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’; and tiny Sarah, who is all about the accessories. She quickly turns into ‘Tinkerbell,’ with high heels and a wand that plays music. She hardly seems to notice the tubes that connect her to the hospital cart wheeled behind her.
The costumes from Chelsea’s Closet may not cure cancer or other diseases, but it turns out that laughter and a simple smile can work wonders for sick kids, who are all still just kids.
Alison Hicks, founder of Chelsea’s Closet, knows that well because Chelsea was her youngest daughter.
“She was the kind of child that lit up a room when she walked into it,” says Hicks. “She loved to dress up and play and just be silly.”
Diagnosed at age three with a rare aggressive cancer, Chelsea endured 13 surgeries and 20 months of chemotherapy and radiation. Through it all, Chelsea’s happiest times involved her cousins, crowns and costumes. When Chelsea died at the age of five, her family knew they wanted to do something for the other children at Doernbecher.
“This was our second home for two years and to not be here would just be strange,” said her mom. “Being here is like being close to Chelsea again.”
So with friends and family and donations, they founded Chelsea’s Closet, bringing the distraction and delight of dress-up to other Doernbecher kids. They now plan to expand their program to other children’s hospitals in the Northwest.
Doernbecher Nurse Elizabeth Henderson cared for Chelsea for two years. “She would have loved this immensely,” says Henderson. “And it makes you wish that she was here to enjoy herself too.”
Chelsea may be gone, but each month as the costume parade winds down the hall, Chelsea’s laughter lives on in the magic of make believe.
Chelsea’s mom, Alison, has been nominated for a national award by Glamour magazine for her inspirational work. You can vote for her by going to this website: www.chelseahicksfoundation.org