With their new photo, Rheann Franklin, 11, Ainsley Peters, 9, and Rylie Hughey, 8, are honoring children who died of cancer
Rheann Franklin, 11, Ainsley Peters, 9, and Rylie Hughey, 8, made headlines in 2014 when they posed together in a photo as they underwent cancer treatment. Now five years later, and cancer-free, the girls are using the annual portrait to honor children who have died due to the illness.
Like last year, the small-town Oklahoma girls teamed up with 4-year-old Connor Lloyd, who is being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, for their new photos. But this time, the four children posed with a large frame featuring photos of nine children who recently died from cancer.
“This year we wanted to honor all the fallen fighters I have photographed as a way to let their families know that they will not be forgotten and to highlight both sides of this awful disease,” Lora Scantling of Scantling Photography tells PEOPLE. “Last year we added Connor to remind people that [although] the girls were cancer-free, there are still kids being diagnosed every day.”
The girls didn’t know each other before taking the viral photo five years ago. But they’ve developed a sweet friendship as they’ve reunited every year since to recreate the picture. Their new portrait shows the girls holding on to one another and sporting small smirks. Scantling says the girls have lots of fun and enjoy posing in the shoots.
“They run up and hug me and each other! They giggle and laugh and play games ’till it’s time to get ready to take pics,” Scantling says. “I love when Rheann comes in, she always has goodies! This year it was Pringles and a bag of candies to share with everyone! Us parents are the same way! It’s so comfortable and easy.”
Scantling, who runs a photography studio in Yukon, says the kids are too young to understand the importance of their posing with photos of other children.
“The parents were really happy and the fallen fighter’s parents were over the moon to have their little angels be a part of this project,” Scantling tells PEOPLE. “I photograph lots of little fighters now. The nine in the photo are the nine that I have photographed that have passed away. It’s hard when I lose them. “
It was spring 2014 when Scantling put out a Facebook post offering to do a special photo shoot of any little girls diagnosed with cancer. After the photo of the trio quickly spread across the internet, several social media users asked Scantling for updates on the girls’ health.
“We never intended it to be an annual thing, of course,” she says. “But when we did the remission photo a few months after the original photo, we kept getting messages asking for another update, so we decided a one-year-later [shoot] would be a good way to update everyone. Then we kept getting more messages and comments, so we just decided to do it yearly!”
The sweet photo tradition is extra special for the little girls.
“Watching the girls interact with him was amazing — they took turns showing off their scars to make him feel more comfortable,” Bridget Hughey, Rylie’s mom, of Chandler, Oklahoma, previously told PEOPLE.
Rheann’s mother told PEOPLE that the little girl will likely never see her hair grow back, but the photos have helped her through her health journey.
“The picture this year means a lot to us,” Valerie Franklin, of Norman, Oklahoma, told PEOPLE of her daughter, “because it helps highlight that yes, the girls are doing great, but childhood cancer is still out there. Rheann loves her friends and wants to help anyone in need.”
As for Ainsley, her mother, Andrea Peters, of Stillwater, Oklahoma, said her daughter is a “warrior.”
“She loves to show compassion to those around her,” Andrea previously told PEOPLE. “We’re both honored to be part of the bigger picture.”