Photo by Liz Lynch

At 9-year-old Nico Borrelli’s house in Bethesda, artwork is everywhere. There’s a framed drawing of fruit in the dining room, and a portrait of the family dog, Otto, in the living room. A chalk pastel of a landscape or an animal hangs on the wall of each bedroom and bathroom.

“Ever since he was little, Nico loved to draw and paint,” says his mother, Wendy. He got an easel from Santa for his second Christmas. In preschool, he was obsessed with drawing tiny monkeys with a felt-tip pen, and his teachers would tell Wendy that they had never seen a kid his age with such strong fine motor skills. “By the time he was 4, I could tell it was his thing,” Wendy says.

In the spring of 2016, the green bin with a frog face in Nico’s room was overflowing with papers from his classes at Artworks Fine Art Studio in Bethesda. Wendy took a photo of each and made a book of her son’s drawings, and she and Nico started to talk about what to do with the originals. Around the same time, Nico learned that a family friend, 1-year-old Brooks Cabe, had been diagnosed with cancer. Brooks’ older brother, Max, and Nico’s younger brother, Luca, both 4, were best friends at the Bethesda Community School. When Nico asked why Max was at their house so much, Wendy explained that Brooks was very sick and spending a lot of time at the hospital with his parents. 

“Luca’s friend Max is really nice. I felt bad for him that he has this baby brother that he never got to play with,” says Nico, a third-grader at Bethesda Elementary School. He decided he wanted to have an art show and give the money he earned to Brooks. Wendy asked the toddler’s parents, Amanda and Erich, who live in Bethesda, if they were comfortable with the idea.

“I thought it was amazing that somebody so young would want to make such an impact,” Amanda says.  

Together, the two families decided to donate the proceeds from the art show to Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., in Brooks’ name, to help fund a study to improve and customize cancer treatment for children. “Art with Heart” was held on a Sunday last August. Family, friends, teachers and neighbors of both families came to the Battery Park community clubhouse to see nearly 100 of Nico’s drawings, which were matted and framed thanks to donations from area frame shops. Kids brought their change purses, and adults wrote checks to buy the art for whatever amount they wanted to donate. “It was really overwhelming,” says Wendy, a high school teacher. “People were blown away by his work and his heart.”  

For the Cabes, the art show was a chance to get out and socialize after five months of living in a virtual bubble, Amanda says. Their son was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, in March 2016, and they had been taking him to Children’s National for steroid and chemotherapy treatments at least once a week, sometimes daily. When they weren’t at the hospital, they stayed home to avoid germs because Brooks’ immune system was so vulnerable. For a while, they kept Max out of preschool as a precaution. They had groceries delivered to their house. Friends dropped off meals and gift bags on their doorstep. People they didn’t know heard about Brooks through Facebook and left messages of support. “We’ve been carried through with our family, friends and [the] prayers of strangers,” says Amanda, a corporate accountant who is now a stay-at-home mom. 

The day of the show, Amanda was relieved to see her boys reconnecting with friends. “They fell back into their old games on the playground,” she says. “Brooks loved being with people—he grabbed a cookie and walked around with chocolate all over his face.” 
Nico initially thought he might raise $100, but his parents set a goal of $1,000 on a Children’s National fundraising page and surpassed it. In the end, between online donations and money collected at the show, Nico raised $2,500. “I felt really happy and confident that Brooks would get better,” he says.  

These days, Brooks is in the maintenance phase of his treatment—he’s receiving steroids and chemotherapy once a month—and his mom says he’s doing “incredibly well.” Nico’s art bin is filling up again, so he’s thinking about having another show this year, maybe to help Brooks, or to benefit an animal shelter or buy art supplies for children in need. “Nico gets it,” says his father, Vince. “It’s sweet how he understands how to help others.”