It took Maia Slowinski a few minutes to realize Friday night when she arrived at the Plant Street Market that the surprise birthday party was being held in her honor. Her eyes scanned the friends and family who had gathered to celebrate, and then she saw the framed prints.
Maia has been photographing nature and architecture for years. Her parents, Suzi Katz, of Ocoee, and Jay Slowinski, of Winter Garden, had 18 of Maia’s photos enlarged and framed and lined them up on tables at Friday’s party. Guests bid on their favorites, and at the end of the party, images such as a vintage bicycle, flowers, a lighthouse and shadows were purchased and $877 was raised. Friends made monetary donations, too, which brought the amount to more than $1,000.
This money will be given to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children to help fund research in hopes of a cure for pediatric brain cancer. The donation will be made in memory of former Mount St. Joseph University basketball player Lauren Hill, who died last year of brain cancer at age 19.
“This special birthday celebration has much more meaning than receiving gifts,” Katz said. “The meaning is bigger than all of us. It’s to help give life to those who need a cure.”
Maia explained why she’s so passionate about this type of cancer: “When people think of cancer, the first thing they probably think of is the pink ribbon and breast cancer. Then I heard of Lauren Hill, and I learned about pediatric brain cancer. I thought that because I had never heard of it, other people hadn't either. It made me think of other kids — some who are as young as me who have what Lauren had, but some of them might not be as lucky as Lauren and achieve a dream before something happens.”
Maia learned of Hill when the basketball player received a National Student-Athlete Day Giant Steps Award in the category of Courageous Student-Athlete in 2015. Hill soon became the face of pediatric brain cancer. When she was posthumously honored, her parents were there to accept the award on her behalf, and Maia had the opportunity to meet them.
“Following that evening and throughout the last year, Maia and (I) had many conversations about Lauren,” Katz said. “We talked about how we wanted to make sure that Lauren’s legacy lived on and that it was important to help raise awareness and funds to help find a cure. Her father … thought that auctioning off her photos was a great beginning.”
Maia has a digital Fuji camera but prefers to photograph with the camera on her iPhone. She is drawn toward flowers and buildings but sees potential in everything.
“Sometimes I spend a lot of time taking pictures of the same thing from different angles and other times I might quickly take maybe two pictures and hope it turns out good,” she said.
Her dream is to become a professional photographer. In the United States, she desires to travel with her camera to Key West, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon and “somewhere where it snows a lot,” she said. Worldwide, Rome, with its ancient architecture, is a goal destination.
The budding photographer is a seventh-grader at Lakeview Middle School, where she is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, takes part in the World Language Academy for Spanish and is in the AVID program. She is a fencer and trains at Winter Garden Fencing Academy.
Arnold Palmer Hospital officials invited Maia and her family to visit the facility. The young photographer has decided to donate her favorite photo, which she titled “Cherry Blossoms.”
“I chose this one because it makes me think about my future because it was located in the same city where I want to go to college,” Maia said of Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. “I want it to give hope to kids with pediatric brain cancer that they will have a bright future when there is a cure.”