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Artist draws sick kids as the picture of health

It has been four months, and Morgan Pratt has never held her baby brother, Ben.

So precarious is the infant's health that he has never left the hospital, and fears of spreading flu have kept Morgan on the other side of a glass wall.

"She wants to be with him," said the children's grandmother Glenda Shepherd. "She can only go and look at him."

But artist Julia Lilley will soon bring them together.

She will take a photo of Morgan and one of Ben and create a pencil sketch of the blonde girl gazing down at her brother in her lap. Then Morgan will have a drawing that she can hold until Ben gets the kidney he needs and they can finally be together.

"Awesome!" Shepherd said of the effort.

"What Julia does is just really fantastic," said Sarah Warner, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House, a non-profit organization that provides temporary housing to families with children in need of medical care. Lilley has given more than 100 portraits to families who stay at the house or to other patients of the University of Kentucky Hospital.

"She shows that there are other ways to help a charity beyond writing a check," Warner said. "Gifts of talent and time are equally important."

Lilley meets her portrait subjects through her work as a hospital shuttle driver. During the typical three- or four-minute ride, she gets to know what families are dealing with. Shortly after starting the work two years ago, she had the idea to offer to draw portraits of some children and occasionally an adult. She was inspired by a woman who had done the same for families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

She always starts with the same question: Do you have a photo?

She draws the children without oxygen tubes, heart-monitor wires or intravenous lines, the hospital equipment that's often in photos taken during their young lives. The idea, she said, is to give families "a preview of a healthy baby."

"These families go through so much," she said. "Every little thing you can do for them matters."

Lilley has been an artist all her life, beginning with portraits of dogs and cats, using her mother's leftover oil paints when she was 2. She went to art school for a year and eventually graduated with a photography degree from a community college. For more than a decade, she worked as a portrait photographer for Sears.

Lilley had asthma and a brain tumor as a child, so she understands the stress that medical problems can have on a family. The portrait project is "a perfect way to combine two things I love: art and helping people."

She presents each family with a framed portrait and draws as many as she can afford. That has gotten more difficult recently. There are seven people living in her house, including her two grandchildren, and several months ago, her husband had to quit his job as a Wal-Mart stocker because of chronic back pain. She does sometimes charge non-patient families $50 for portraits to help cover her costs.

She has thought about trying to make a living drawing but decided it's best not to make it a job lest she lose her passion for it.

"I want to love to do this," she said, "I want that love to come through the picture. The appreciation means more than money could buy," she said.

Because she usually deals with the sickest of sick children, not all her subjects have survived. But the mother of one little girl loved the original portrait so much that she asked Lilley to add angel wings. That image is on the girl's gravestone.

"That," said Lilley, with tears in her eyes, "was just an honor."