Sabrina Thompson, The Observer

When a family has a child with a chronic illness or special medical needs, sometimes life can get bogged down in constant doctors’ appointments, treatments and therapy sessions. Being reminded of the joy life brings can revive the spirits of those often overwhelmed families. Portrait Connection, a nonprofit organization, creates portraits of the children and gifts them to the families to bring hope and celebration to their lives.
Friday in La Grande, eight families received their portraits in a special unveiling ceremony.

The founder and executive director of Portrait Connection, Elaine Eisenbraun, was inspired to start the nonprofit in 2016. Friends of hers, who have a child with cystic fibrosis, were moving, and she gave them a portrait of their child as a way to send them off with an endearing farewell gift. Seeing how much joy that portrait brought them, Eisenbraun wanted to do that for other families. Now the program runs out of Bend but is reaching across the country to other areas of Oregon, Arizona, South Carolina, Kentucky and Minnesota, with hopes of going to even more states.

“We saw two different situations,” Eisenbraun said. “Families who are struggling to find peace in their lives while they’re dealing with all this upheaval of medical challenges. And artists who are struggling to engage their careers and get recognition. Sometimes you put two divergent things together and you get something good.”

To have a portrait done of a child, the parents, or someone who thinks the family would benefit from the portrait can fill out a form on the Portrait Connection website. According to the website, “Portrait Connection serves children who have a medical condition that is considered progressive, degenerative, or malignant and are within two years of their most recent treatment. The child must be between the ages of 1 and 18 years old at the time of application.”

Portrait Connection receives funding through organizations and private donations. The artists are paid for their work, though Eisenbraun wishes she could give them more. Her hope is that with the growth of the organization, it will gain more funding and be able to bring joy to more children and their families, and also support participating artists more substantially.

Portrait Connection assigns a child to an artist, sending photos for reference. These artists live all over the nation, so they don’t often meet the children in person, according to Eisenbraun. However, during Friday’s event, one artist was able to finally meet his subject.

Rodd Ambroson, of Joseph, painted a portrait, and had the opportunity to meet his subject, Dwayne Jaden
McClendon, a 2-year-old who was born addicted to drugs after his mother, an addict, used during her pregnancy. According to DJ’s grandmother, Andrea Rust, he was in the hospital the first two months of his life as he went through withdrawals. Today DJ has behavioral and bladder issues. Rust said she was happy with the way the portrait came out, and that looking at it made her think of hope, future and love.

“It made me feel good to tell (the artist) ‘thank you’ in person,” Rust said.

The portraits were presented as a surprise to each family with a sheet being withdrawn to reveal the images. Artists were allowed creative liberty, which made each painting as unique as the child it portrayed. Many of the parents said the artists did an excellent job with capturing their child’s personality.

“It is just a bright spot in our life and a happy memory of a time he was celebrated,” Karla Macy, from Baker City, mother of Gus Macy, a 3-year-old with spina bifida, said of the painting of her son. “It just looks like his personality.”

When shown his portrait, Gus said, “It’s very cute.”