To Walk in Their Shoes: Finding Meaning in Art and Giving

For Reno teenager Olivia Tillis, painting shoes is more than just a hobby – it is a way to honor her mother’s memory, while also giving back to the brain tumor community. Olivia’s mother, Rosie Tillis, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2017 and passed away almost two years later.

Since then, Olivia, now a high-school senior, has found healing in painting shoes for brain tumor survivors. “It makes me proud and fills me with joy, knowing that I can make other people feel happy,” said Olivia, “that people who are still here – survivors – are noticed.”

Shoes painted as a gift for brain tumor patients

In less than a year, Olivia has created six pairs of shoes for brain tumor survivors, each individually designed with special meaning for the recipient. The first pair, for a firefighter, depicts a firefighter flag. Another pair of shoes references the survivor’s love of sailing. All of her shoe designs incorporate a butterfly, a symbol of hope and transformation used by the UCSF Sheri Sobrato Brisson Brain Cancer Survivorship Program.

Olivia’s painted shoes are gifted in partnership with the Survivorship Program, to selected survivors who share their insights and perspectives on the program’s webinar series, “Living Well After Brain Cancer Treatment.” The collaboration began when Olivia reached back out to her mother’s care team at UCSF.

“This gift has special significance for our survivor webinar panelists,” said program manager Naomi Hoffer, “because it suggests a theme we have about knowing what it’s like to ‘walk in the shoes’ of another survivor who might be struggling but open to hearing something helpful or inspiring.”

Each set of shoes typically takes five to six hours to complete, and is gifted along with a heartfelt letter from Olivia as part of the To Walk In Their Shoes project. “I was amazed with her composure, thoughtfulness, and compassion,” said one recipient. “Her letter and shoes are one of the most meaningful gifts I have received, and I will truly cherish them.”

Olivia has also auctioned several of her paintings to benefit the V Foundation for Cancer Research. In a way, painting has become not only a means of giving back, but also therapeutic for her. “Art is her way of disappearing and being able to just focus on something and forget everything that's going on,” said Olivia’s father, John Tillis.

Tillis Family in 2017
John, Olivia, and Rosie Tillis at a family outing in September 2017

The To Walk in Their Shoes project also holds special meaning for John. “It's a reminder of how deadly this disease really is, and how fortunate these people are to be able to survive,” he said. “The other part is it's the memory of her mother and my wife, that we can continue her legacy."

Indeed, it is fitting that Olivia paints in honor of her mother, who gave Olivia her first canvas. “My mom loved how artistic I was,” Olivia said. “It was one of her favorite things to see what I would come up with.”