The first time Icing Smiles founder and Executive Director Tracy Quisenberry delivered a cake, the experience wasn’t what she expected. It was January 2010, and the cake was for a young girl named Violet, who was celebrating her 7th birthday in a hospital room. After five rounds of chemo for a brain tumor, Violet didn’t have a lot of energy to celebrate.
Violet’s mother thanked Tracy and saw her out. Then, as Tracy was passing the front desk of the hospital, she overheard Violet’s grandparents telling the receptionist how amazing the cake their granddaughter had just received was.
“Do you see how beautiful this is?” they asked. “They needed something positive today, and this was incredible.”
At that moment, Tracy realized the enjoyment she would get from watching Violet’s reaction to the cake wasn’t what was most important. The effect it could have on a family struggling with a child’s critical illness was so much greater.
“It was that perfect ‘Aha!’ moment for Tracy,” says Chelsea Boog, development and communications coordinator for Icing Smiles. “Yes, there is joy being a baker and doing what we do. But it makes such an impact past just this one child. It’s their parents, their grandparents, a neighbor at the birthday party where the cake is received. The ricochet effect of the smile that a cake can bring is really incredible.”
Angels In the Kitchen
Since that first delivery, Icing Smiles and its network of volunteer bakers, known as Sugar Angels, have delivered nearly 30,000 cakes to critically ill children at no cost to their families. While elaborate Dream Cakes are one-time-only treats, families can also request a Fun Cake each year for events such as birthdays.
Tina Mike, a sugar angel in West Palm Beach, Florida, started volunteering in 2018 after leaving her job as an IT engineer. She had been baking for years as a hobby, but her first cake for Icing Smiles immediately convinced her that this was different.
“I just remember this little girl running across the lawn and jumping into my arms,” Tina says. “She said, ‘Thank you,’ and I told her, ‘You’re welcome, but you haven’t even seen the cake yet.’ And she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be beautiful.’ I was hooked right then and there.”
The only request Icing Smiles makes of families is that they submit applications for cakes three months in advance, giving the organization time to find a nearby baker in their database of 13,000 volunteers from across the United States and beyond. Based on their skill levels, some bakers may be qualified to handle Dream Cakes, Fun Cakes or surprise sugar cookie deliveries for families they have served before.
Chelsea joined Icing Smiles as a sugar angel in 2013, baking six Dream Cakes and one Fun Cake. Volunteering offered her a chance to give back while putting her recent culinary training to work.
“When I started at Icing Smiles, it was as a baker wanting to give back and be part of that side of the mission,” she says. “But I never knew I would understand the family side and be able to receive a cake.”
In 2016, Chelsea gave birth to her first son, Vincent, who appeared healthy. Three weeks later, he was diagnosed with multiple congenital heart defects. He underwent four open-heart surgeries and died at 10 weeks old.
Ever since, Chelsea has celebrated Vincent’s birthday, throwing a party and raising money for different nonprofits each year. On his first birthday, she received a cake from Icing Smiles for the party she planned. It was a simple gift but one that went a long way on such an important occasion.
“I planned it all and was so proud and honored to do it,” Chelsea says. “But your energy can only go so far when your emotions are in a lot of different places.”
For a family stretched thin by the demands of taking care of a critically ill child, even simple gestures can prove incredibly helpful.
Julie Hall’s 6-year-old daughter, Sammy, was born with a complex congenital heart defect. The family lives in Salem, Oregon, and the care Sammy needs is often hours away.
“A week doesn’t go by without at least one appointment,” Julie says. “And most have four or five appointments. Some require a drive to the children’s hospital, which is not in our city. It’s an hour and a half away. So there just isn’t a lot of extra time to figure out things like finding a cake baker, picking it up, all of that stuff.”
Sammy has received six Fun Cakes from Icing Smiles, one on each birthday. Among her favorites are one of a dog with icing piped to look like fur and another of Winnie-the-Pooh stuck in a honey pot.
The joy of the experience isn’t limited to just one day.
“It’s been such a blessing and an exciting thing that our daughter looks forward to, that we all look forward to,” Julie says. “She loves that she gets to think of an idea for a cake, and then the baker makes it all come to life.”
The cakes have also provided a sense of connection during periods when Sammy’s health was less stable or during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really was like somebody else was celebrating her birthday with us,” Julie says. “They may not be here, but they thought of her, made this cake for her and are also excited that she is one year older.”
A Special Day
For the sugar angels, those connections elevate the work they do beyond their typical baking.
Chelsea recalls one cake in 2019 that has always stuck with her. Known around Icing Smiles as “The Diego Cake,” it was baked for Jaden Taylor, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as an infant and was later diagnosed with gastroparesis, hyperthyroidism and hyperalgesia.
When he was 8 years old, after years of moving back and forth between hospitals, Jaden was transferred to hospice care with the understanding that he likely would not improve. His mother, Felicia, contacted Icing Smiles, hoping to make his last birthday unforgettable.
Sugar angel Mike Elder came through with a 3-foot-tall cake featuring a sculpture of the title character from Jaden’s favorite show, “Go, Diego, Go!” It was the centerpiece of Jaden’s celebration. He died the next day.
“The day after, the mother is clearly going through the worst time of her life,” Chelsea says. “But she took the time to email Icing Smiles and say, ‘I just want you to know how special you made my child’s last day on Earth.’ To know that a cake made that day a celebration—one of the hardest days she’ll ever have to go through—that’s really what the impact of the cake can do.”
Icing Smiles has delivered almost 30,000 cakes since it began. Visit icingsmiles.org for information on how to volunteer or receive a cake.