One winter night, in December of 2012, Dallas Graham’s younger sister phoned him from Seattle to say she just had learned that a mutual friend from childhood had a son, Mitchell, with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The 10 year old boy was dying. Their immediate and joint response was: “What can we possibly do for them? For him?”
As Graham thought about the “certain uncertainties,” what he describes as a “star-thought” landed on him. It felt distinctly like an avian character he created, “Red Fred lighting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear: ‘We want to to make a book with him.'” He emailed the family, begging forgiveness for “encroaching on anything that would seem strange or unethical and at the same time,” he told them “children love my birds and my birds love children.” They graciously accepted the invitation to make a book for their son.
Three months later, Graham received a message that Mitchell was in the final few days and that the family was coming together to be with him. Days later, thousands witnessed his passing. The grieving family had kept friends and relatives updated through social media. “Thousands grieved and mourned,” said Graham “So did my birds.”
How did you become involved with The Red Fred Project?
That day [of Mitchell’s passing] I determined what exactly I wanted to do. I wanted to create joy and legacies. I wanted to create original, one-of-a-kind stories with children with critical illnesses, self-publish their books and then put it into their hands and say, ‘Way to go! You did it. You made a book!’ Additionally, the proceeds of each printed book would go to the child’s/family’s medical expenses. This is what the Red Fred Project is.
Is there a particular issue in your own family that you wanted to address?
Not particularly. But I do understand, to a certain extent, what death and departure of a little one does to a person. When I was 9 years old, my cousin (whom I was very close with) died from the effects of leukemia. His death had a profound influence on me at a young age. I definitely see threads of that experience in my intention now.
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Was Mitchell your first subject?
Truthfully, there were two ‘firsts.’ Mitchell Jones was the boy I talked about earlier. He died before we were able to work on his book. The second ‘first’ is Nathan Glad. I was introduced to him through a man named Stephen Stauffer. Stephen runs an organization which improves the lives of children with very rare diseases. It’s called Angel’s Hands. When I called him and explained what the Red Fred Project was and that I was seeking a child to work with, he said, ‘I know exactly who you need to meet.’ That’s how I met Nathan.
This has to be an emotionally wrenching project. Has it consumed your professional practice?
Yes and no. The first thought is that working with children with critical illnesses can potentially be very weighty, especially if the child’s life won’t last much longer. Additionally, I am not around this special demographic in my professional or personal life much—unlike doctors, nurses, home-care providers, therapists. However, I find that by engaging them with their imaginations and story-making ideas, there is a lot of star-dust material that shapes the time and environment when we work together. How do I say this without sounding insensitive: there isn’t a lot of “pity” in this project; conversely, there is an abundance of creativity and life and fantastic conjuring which colors the incredible life this child is living. These are magical, creative children who have faced significant challenges in short lifetimes, with humor, compassion and wisdom-filled stories to share. The Red Fred Project gives those children and their stories a voice.
Are you a designer?
I suppose I am … and I’m not trying to be obtuse, either. I create with images, typography, photography and writing in all manner of creative ways. That’s what I’ve done for years. Does that mean I’m a designer? You tell me.
What is the status of the project now?
We completed our first book with our first creative! Nathan’s book is called “Climbing with Tigers.” We celebrated the accomplishment by having a book-signing downtown. Hundreds came to support and meet him. It was completely captivating to witness, first hand. We are in discussion with a family in Idaho who has a 6-year-old daughter with stage 3 melanoma and there is a teenager in California with a rare brain cancer that has expressed interest, too. People are writing in asking if they can help find the children. It’s a fascinating and humbling thing to watch.
What is the future of the project?
The Red Fred Project‘s goal is to create 50 books with 50 children across the 50 states. Once that is completed, we hope to share this same creative process with thousands of children. I believe we can do that by inviting creatives in every city to get involved, if they’d like to. My hope is that they will take the initiative and reach out to us. We’ll send them the assets they’ll need to use to keep the books within the style of the Red Fred Project, but otherwise, I want to encourage them to walk out of their studio, take a train ride or bus ride or car ride to a home with a child with a critical illness. I want them to have their own experience creating a hard-bound legacy of joy and creativity, topped with star.
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