At four years old, bright and curious and chatty, Natalie Cannella knows exactly what she wants to be when she grows up. An artist. She wants to be an artist and she’s already practicing because she wants to be an artist like her very close friend, Bow Wow.
No one seems to know where the name Bow Wow came from, but it’s no mystery who it is. This is what Natalie calls Myrissa McAndrews, her mother’s best friend since before they both attended Kingsway Regional High School. McAndrews, who works at her family’s farm, Fruit Valley Farms in Mullica Hill, is an artist.
More specifically, McAndrews is an artist in the contemporary genre, abstract mode. Her work, the swirls and lines, tangles and knots, all cohered with patterns and compelling, unexpected colors, is not the ordinary you will find in a farm girl’s canvas but it has developed a fan base and the biggest fan is Natalie.
‘Bow Wow’ bought her protégé a sketch book and oil pastels, which are a sort of artist crayon, and Natalie began emulating her friend’s art. It is one of the very few things she can do, just yet, on her own. She can hold a brush in her little hand and make swirls of color, fashioning her vision after McAndrews’.
A pretty child with happy eyes, bouncy brown hair, and one of those winning smiles every toddler seems to have down pat, Natalie was born three months prematurely in October 2013. Her mother, Martha Cannella of South Harrison Township, faced a litany of bad news.
Her baby was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a left club foot, and multiple other conditions. She spent 52 days in Pennsylvania Hospital’s NICU before gaining strength enough to go home.
Cerebral Palsy, the result of injury that occurs while the brain is developing either before, during, or after birth can result in brain damage that affects muscle control and coordination, balance and reflexes. Natalie’s joints and muscles are stiff, particularly on her right side, and her control of them is limited. She is mobile only with a wheelchair.
Natalie recently received surgery at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia to address problems with her hips and leg. She goes weekly to the hospital for physical therapy. A single mom, Martha Cannella took a leave from her job as an esthetician to care full-time for Natalie. She is helped by her family and her friends, and by McAndrews.
“Myrissa and Natalie’s connection has grown over the years in a way that I don’t know how to explain. Myrissa and I have always had a connection,” Cannella said through an email. “We can talk about everything under the sun – deep and sometimes just gossip. We’ve worked through life’s issues together. Our friendship is strong and Natalie feeds on that. Natalie has a deep love of art and music. Seeing Myrissa paint really inspires Natalie. There is a creative gene in her.”
As difficult as it sometimes is, Cannella said, there are compensations. Her family, from grandparents to cousins, her friends pitching in, make a big difference, and so does her fiancé, a man from North Carolina with a pre-teen son and a willingness to work overtime for his family.
There is also the joy that is Natalie, Cannella said. “(She) does have for the most part a very sunny disposition. Her curiosity is off the charts (and) we have many conversations about the ‘circle of life’ and other deep topics that you would not expect a four year old to be interested in.”
McAndrews, who characterized her friendship with Martha as “BFF”, offered help from the start, “I was there to help her brush Natalie’s teeth, for feeding, taking baths, getting dressed,” she recalled. “I became a large part of Natalie’s life, her everyday life. I’d pitch in. But when you spend time with Natalie, she has such imagination and takes you on adventures. She’s the happiest, sassiest little girl, fiery and doesn’t let anything stop her.”
McAndrews said her own art work seems attractive to Natalie, a fact that pleases her. “I have a piece hanging in one of her doll houses,” McAndrews said, chuckling, “It’s a tiny abstract with her favorite colors, pink and green and red. She also likes purples a lot. She definitely draws from my work and she sometimes tries to match my colors. She draws a lot. It makes me proud that she wants to be a painter like me. That I’m an influence.”
Her mother, too, said Natalie’s model is Myrissa. “Natalie does make all of her art in swirls. It is hard for her to draw vertically or horizontally- it’s something she’s spent time on in occupational therapy. She loves to see her swirls mix with other color swirls!” That mix is a signature move in Myrissa’s oil paintings.
The artist, who spent half a year last summer at the SoHa Arts Building in Haddon Township, taught lessons there and won the admiration of the building’s owner, Dom Flamini. “She’s a beautiful young lady, very personable, quiet and reserved,” he recalled. “She was received positively by colleagues and other professionals and I was very sorry when she left.
“She has her own beat, her own drum and I really liked it,” Flamini continued. “I’d be happy to have one of her paintings on a wall in my house. There’s something special about the colors.”
There’s something special about her friendship with Natalie and her family, too. When the doctors began preparing Martha Cannella for the prospect her daughter would never be able to walk, McAndrews knew hands-on help was only part of what the Cannellas would need. “When I heard that, I wanted to help prepare for the future and I started a fundraiser. It was daunting, this was my first fundraiser.”
The Beef and Beer fundraiser held earlier this year raised about $11,000 for Natalie’s expenses, and a GoFundMe page has so far raised nearly another $800. “I didn’t know what I was doing so I organized a Team Natalie and started designating tasks,” McAndrews laughed. “It worked. Now we’re in place and in the future I would absolutely consider doing more fundraisers.
“I love Natalie with all my heart. She’s my soul-sister. Fundraising will be ongoing. As she grows, she’ll need more considerations, like, as the wheelchair gets bigger, soon it won’t fit through the hallways and there’ll need to be remodeling.
“So I’ll keep fundraising.” McAndrews said. “She’s worth fighting for.”
The GoFundMe page is still in place on the Web, with donations still needed. Martha Cannella said her daughter receives Medicaid funding, which the Shriner’s Hospital accepts. “A lot of closer doctors and therapists don’t take Medicaid as health insurance,” she noted.
But medical care is only part of the cost of a serious chronic condition. “The out of pocket cost comes with her accessibilty needs,” Cannella continued, in an email interview. “For example: wheelchair lift for her van – $20,000, bath chair for the tub – $400, (a harness and lifter for mobility) -$550, (special) swing for a swing set $500. It’s insane (how) the cost of normal things a four year old would need get jacked up so high when you put special needs in front of (the name).
“Also living on one income comes into play – with me being her full-time care taker and unable to keep my job we’ve had to cut our life style back quite a bit and are just able to make ends meet,” Cannella added.
Knowing there are bound to be pitfalls in the road ahead, McAndrews has taken one more step to smooth that road for Natalie. She has offered a series of original paintings, dubbed ‘Vibrant Souls’ to Shriner’s Hospital to brighten the walls with some of the colorful work she produces. Her offer was accepted, including her request that at least one work in the series be hung in the physical therapy room where Natalie has her weekly treatments.
“I used the colors Natalie is fondest of,” McAndrews said.
While the recent surgery at Shriner’s Hospital went well, Martha Cannella said, there are no guarantees Natalie will leave her wheelchair. Natalie’s surgeon, however, has offered a positive outlook, according to Stephanie Byrwa, a spokesperson for the hospital. In an email response about Natalie’s case, Byrwa sent the following: “Natalie is a fantastic kid with a wonderful, supportive family. She and her family asked a lot of great questions before surgery and I know is going to do fantastic afterward!” stated Dr. Corrinna Franklin, orthopaedic surgeon at Shriners Hospitals for Children.
In her email, Byrwa said Shriner’s Hospital strives to “truly embrace all of our patients and provide excellent family-centered care.
“We’re so pleased that Myrissa has been inspired by Natalie to create a piece of artwork for not only Natalie to look at but (also for) all of the other patients that come through the halls of our hospital to the rehab department.”
Natalie is a fighter, McAndrews said, and maybe that fight will be made easier with visible proof of a soul-sister’s love on the wall.
To visit Natalie’s GoFundMe page, go to: https://www.gofundme.com/NataliesCPfund
For more about Myrissa McAndrews and her artwork, visit her website: https://myrissamcandrewsart.com/
Learn about Shriner’s Hospital for Children, Philadelphia at: https://www.shrinershospitalsforchildren.org/philadelphia
By Jean Redstone