It was a day and evening to showcase and celebrate the best and the brightest offerings of the entertainment industry from 2016: the 74th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills. As Hollywood newbies and legends alike made their way down the infamous red carpet toward the entrance of the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 8, bulbs flashed as professional photographers all vied for the best shots.
And this year, among the throng of photogs was 8-year-old Juanita Hernandez: a talented aspiring shutterbug … and a courageous cancer survivor.
Juanita, who wore a sparkly cream-colored dress with a matching headband, enjoyed the unique Golden Globes gig thanks to the Pablove Foundation, which serves children and teens between 6 and 18 who have cancer or are in remission. The nonprofit supports cancer research, provides education and aims to improve children’s lives through photography, providing training workshops and courses.
Each year, Pablove sends one lucky participant to the Golden Globes — and this year it was Juanita, who was already a fan of the annual awards show. How did Juanita feel when she found out she would have this incredible opportunity?
“Excited, and um ...” she paused, trailing away, thinking intently as she tried to recall her initial reaction to the news. “Also super great — and nervous too.”
And the experience was even better than she had imagined, Juanita recalled. The highlights? Getting the chance to photograph — and even to meet and have her picture taken with — some of her favorite stars, including A-listers such as Amy Adams, Kerry Washington and Jeff Bridges … and especially her favorite: Ryan Gosling.
“I got to take pictures of a lot of people,” she said. “It was good.”
As she shared her story with Angelus News on a recent late January afternoon — while sitting across from her mother, Amanda, and little sister, Carlota — the bubbly brown-haired Juanita spoke excitedly about the Golden Globes and mused thoughtfully about her long journey back to health, while alternating between pensive looks, sweet smiles and the occasional fidgets of a typical third-grader.
In March 2014, Juanita was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor in her left kidney following numerous visits to the doctor, weeks after her early symptoms were mistakenly attributed to a “virus,” said Amanda, who is Catholic, adding that she initially found herself struggling with her faith following the devastating diagnosis.
“When all that happened, actually — I was mad … and kind of fighting with my faith,” she recalled softly. Amidst the spiritual struggle and emotional angst, Amanda would often find herself asking God, “Why not me, instead of her?”
“It was after that, really slowly, I started going back to my faith again,” she said. “It took me almost a year to go back again and to really slowly reconcile.”
The once vibrant and active kindergartener went from ballet classes and beach days to more doctor visits, lengthy hospital stays and, eventually, to radiation, surgery to remove her afflicted kidney and months of chemotherapy. “I couldn’t go to school for some time,” according to Juanita. During that difficult period, she painted and watched a lot of movies while she was home.
In an effort to seek a sense of normalcy and help keep Juanita happy and engaged in between treatments, Amanda and her husband encouraged her to become involved in Pablove “Shutterbugs” during the summer of 2014.
Offering more than just point-and-shoot instruction, Pablove taught Juanita “different perspectives on how to take pictures, how to use light, how to focus and how to make effects,” she says in an excerpt from prepared remarks she regularly shares with incoming Pablove participants. In her presentations, Juanita talks about her journey, from her diagnosis to her remission, and discusses her deep gratitude for the program.
“The best part [about] participating in the Shutterbugs program, apart from learning how to take pictures, is that I had the opportunity to share with kids who were sick like me and were living similar experiences,” says Juanita in her speech.
“After the classes, I loved taking pictures of all the places that we were going and all the activities that we were doing, all the time,” she told Angelus.
And her love of photography endures to this day — Juanita rarely leaves home without her camera, and even at home she is constantly snapping photos.
“[Ever since] she got the camera, she has just kept it with her all the time,” said Amanda. “When she’s at home, she’s with the camera always taking pictures, and when we travel, she always takes the camera — and she takes good pictures.
“A lot of pictures,” she added with a smile.
Juanita’s favorite subject matter? That’s easy, she answers with glee: her dog Charlie, a gray floppy-eared Shihpoo, a Shih Tzu and poodle crossbreed.
“I always like to take pictures of Charlie, doing silly dog things,” she said.
Reflecting on her road to recovery, Juanita said that she now feels “stronger than ever.” She enjoys going to school and loves spending time with her friends and family members. She resumed her ballet classes, still loves going to the beach and has even learned how to ride a bicycle and use roller skates.
And, virtually everywhere Juanita goes, her trusty camera goes with her.
“Every picture that I took while I was sick reminds me of my past and the difficult times,” she said, “but also it reminds me of the great future ahead of me.”