ATLANTA -- He looks about 7 years old. He is bald and is sporting an enormous smile. He holds up his arm, displaying his latest creation. Colorful glass beads encircle his thin wrist. These are Beads of Courage, and this isn't just any jewelry.
A father holds his toddler son, more than a half dozen necklaces are strung about the father's neck - his son's Beads of Courage. "That's about 8.5 months in the in-patient," he said.
Every single bead serves as a marker, a milestone for a journey this child and their parents never wanted to make.
"We're dealing with trying to get the cancer back under control from the second relapse," said Bobby Johnson. He has brought his son to the Beads of Courage party at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.
Six-year-old Joshua Johnson is battling Neuroblastoma, again. Joshua sits in his wheelchair, chemo dripping from his IV stand. He wears a mask to protect his weakened immune system. Blond haired and blue eyed, he is a beautiful boy who looks hesitant and sad as he scours a nearby bowl for one of his favorite colored beads.
Joshua isn't feeling very well today but he wanted to come get some beads. Today is special because the beads are endless. Normally, each bead is earned the hard way.
A teenage girl grabs a bead on her necklace and explains why it's special to her: "It's for 200 pokes." 200 pokes with a needle, there's a bead for that. Losing hair, there's a bead for that. Chemotherapy, a bead for that too. Simple math tells you the more beads you see, the more the child has endured.
To some it may be a sad sight, but remember, these are Beads of Courage, beloved by those who wear them.
"In reality, I don't want the beads," said 18-year-old Laura Steward. "I wish I wasn't in this situation, but they give me hope and show me that there are other people out there rooting for me."
Laura is tall and thin and very fashion forward. She is beautiful even without her hair. It's hard for her to forget where she should be.
"I would be at the University of Georgia for my freshman year," she said. "All my friends are doing fun things and I'm fighting for my life right now."
Diagnosed with bone cancer three years ago, Laura was cancer free for 18 months before relapsing this year. It was devastating.
"I've gone through a ton of chemo, way too much chemo," she said. "It's difficult. It's really hard, especially right now at this time in my life, especially just seeing the pain on my parents faces."
"We just stay strong and fight the fight," Laura's mom Barbara Coombe said, choking up. "I don't know what else to do."
So Laura's mom keeps doing, keeps taking Laura to chemotherapy, keeps praying the beads are like bread crumbs that will lead them out of the dark and into the light back to health.
"Every one they get represents pain that they've been through," Barbara said.
"They need a bead for moms," Laura added.
"That'd be good," Barbara replied.
Laura no longer dreams of being a doctor. She has had to change her wish.
"What I wish for myself is to wake up tomorrow," she said.
Back at the party, the jewelry making continues. They are brave little soldiers fighting an unfair battle. Each bead is a medal, a sign they've come a little further. Each bead is hope that one day they won't need any more beads.