Kirstin Hoff is an inspiration. The cancer survivor came out of her battle with a deepened understanding of the importance of joy and a mission to awaken that exuberance in others. Joy, hope, laughter and kindness from others not only helped to heal her, but she realized that, in her pre-cancer, to-do-list-centric life, she was missing the richness of “being present in the small joys.” She describes her transformation as being “repurposed,” like the vintage jewelry and found objects she weaves into her whimsical multimedia paintings of chickens and roosters for her nonprofit, Chick 4a Cause. We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Kirstin Hoff!
Tell us about Chick 4a Cause. How did it come about?
I paint chickens using repurposed treasures, and the customers choose from four organizations where they would like the proceeds from their chick to be donated: American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, American Cancer Society Cancer Research, UAB Angel Squad or Open Hands Overflowing Hearts.
I wanted to find a way to do something to share hope and joy with people going through challenges in life. I am almost two-and-a-half years out from chemo, radiation to treat invasive breast cancer, and a battle against C. Diff during these treatments. The doctors in ICU were not sure if I would be able to survive. I could hear them talking to my husband that perhaps he should call our family to come into town because my body was having a hard time fighting. It was an extraordinary feeling that came over me — I knew I would survive and even knew I was supposed to share my joy for life. I have a strong faith, but have been nervous to talk about that experience until recently, because I didn’t want people to think I was a crazy lady. In addition to my cancer, many members of both my husband’s and my family have battled some type of cancer in the last few years, including my mother who lost her battle last May to colon cancer. It felt like everyone I knew had a cancer story.
In today’s world, there are so many things we can worry about and so much negative information we are bombarded with on a daily basis that I decided to make Chick 4a Cause’s mission simple: In addition to the proceeds donated, I want these whimsical chicks to bring light to the fact that we can all choose joy and make a positive difference, even if it is through simple laughter and kindness. We all have a choice every day on how we go through the challenging times in our lives, whether it is cancer or any of the other numerous challenges life can bring.
Tell us about your work with the UAB Angel Squad and Kirklin Clinic.
Once my mind and body were strong enough after treatment, I felt a deep sense of urgency to help other people. Even though I stayed upbeat as I fought, I would get tired, sick and worn down. And then, moments of joy would happen — my children would come snuggle and tell me about their day, friends would bring a meal to the family or just stop over to sit, my husband would come hold me after getting sick from the last round of chemo, funny and supportive cards would arrive in the mail, an “Angel” from the Angel Squad would come and sit to offer an ear, a snack and a cold cup of apple juice to show that there is hope after the battle.
Joy can shift the pendulum of a person’s spirit. Their positive words of encouragement are still deeply woven into my being. I wanted to be that voice of hope in someone else’s life. I wanted to try to give the same uplifting support I received during those times of weakness and frustration that cancer can create.
So, what is a typical day in the life of Kirstin Hoff?
They all start with coffee and usually dried-on paint on my fingernails from painting late into the night before. On days that I am not spending time with cancer patients and their families, I find happiness visiting local retirement communities and chatting with those men and women. I can’t even describe how much pleasure it gives me to sit and hear stories from their lives. Then, of course, I handle all of my “mother of an 11- and 12-year-old” duties.
Some days I head to local thrift stores and art stores to find supplies for my paintings, and other days I collect old wood or pick up items that people have started donating for my paintings. I try to repurpose and reuse. Ironically that’s a lot like cancer — just when you feel like you are beaten up, worn down and a skeleton of your former self, new life can be breathed into you, and you can be “repurposed.”
What is the best thing people can do to support their family and friends who are fighting cancer?
This is something I am asked often. The best thing to do is to be present. I know we all feel like we don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, so we tend to stay back. However, for me, it was knowing I had a whole army fighting with me, which made me stronger. Things that friends and family did that helped us: provided meals for my husband and children, helped with laundry, grabbed groceries, helped with carpool, included our children in their family activities, walked our dog and sent magazines and books. And my two favorites would come watch TV with me and send funny cards and care packages.
What was your life like before cancer, and how did cancer change your perspective on life?
I would say the biggest difference was I felt invincible. I loved life and focused on the positives before cancer, but probably focused just as much on getting my forever growing “to-do” list done and stressing out when things didn’t go as I had planned. However, cancer, and especially my battle with C. Diff, truly showed me how precious life is, and I realized how much time I spent on my “to-do” list without stopping to smell the roses and be present in the small joys. I also have, for the most part, stopped stressing about the small things that go wrong. I ask myself, “If I were back laying in ICU, would this really matter to me?”
What is most rewarding about your work?
I guess it would be that it has become a “family affair.” My daughter helps paint the gesso, my son loves to treasure hunt with me, and my husband has started keeping up with all of the orders and writing the proceed checks. It’s very rewarding to see our children learning about doing for others and bringing joy to others in different ways.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love to hang out with friends, listen to music, read, travel, sit by the ocean or pool, go to the library to explore, eat good food, cook and thrift- and antique-hunt. Gosh, there is so much I love to do that I have to stop or you are going to run out of space!
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
To be present and aware of all the “small” things that can bring happiness rather than worrying about the “what ifs” and “what didn’t get done” and “all the work I need to do.” I know I missed a lot of life’s fab moments.
What is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
The kindness of the people and the fabulous restaurants.
Any favorite spots in town or hidden gems?
I think Moss Rock is a great treasure in Birmingham. I meet people from all over the world hiking the trails during their visit to Birmingham. The waterfalls and rocks make you feel like you are on an escape weekend. Even in the summer, I can run the trails and it feels 10 degrees cooler.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My grandmother would tell me, among many other wise things, that “sometimes a nap can solve what seems like life’s biggest problems.” She was right. If I was worried or upset and took a 15-minute nap, the world often looked clearer. I find myself passing on her advice to my children often.
Name three material things you can’t live without.
Thank you, Kirstin! Learn more about Kirstin’s “chicks” on the Chicks 4a Cause Facebook page.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the fabulous photos of Kirstin in her home studio.