Portrait studios have often played a part in creating timeless memories in many people’s lives. Whether the portraits are of babies sitting on a table surrounded by toys, or a family portrait, there is usually at least one instance in which people find themselves staring down the lens of a camera and tilting their heads into unnatural positions “for the angle.” The memories created from professional portraits are treasured forever, often brought up at family gatherings and framed on the mantelpiece.
However, some families don’t get to have that experience due to conditions that prevent them from working with the photographer, or vice versa. Office manager Stephanie Smith caught wind of an instance in which a photographer canceled on a Wisconsin family after refusing to work with a child with Down Syndrome. Smith stepped in and flew out to meet the family, later conducting a free photo shoot for them.
Since then, Smith’s act of kindness has expanded into the nonprofit Lenses for Love. Smith herself has done 17 photo shoots with kids with special needs as well as expanded her nonprofit by recruiting other photographers around the country to donate their time in conducting free photo shoots.
“I just want our society to change what people see as beautiful and to stop being so judgmental,” Smith says. “I want people to look at them as kids first.”
Smith’s motivation to start Lenses for Love came from the help her sister Melissa received from Chive Charities after beating cancer twice. Melissa was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disease in which the spinal cord is attacked by the immune system.
“We were preparing to put her in a nursing home and were facing huge costs,” Smith says. “There’s no doubt in my mind she would not be here today if it weren’t for the kindness of these people, of these complete strangers. After that, it clicked — I have to pay it forward.”
Smith’s expenses for the photo shoots are funded through a GoFundMe campaign. With any money left over from the campaign, Smith buys toys and gadgets for the family she’s photographing. Recently, Smith bought a child an iPad. However, for Smith, it isn’t about the money.
“It can’t always be about how much money you can make,” she says. “When you give back, the blessing comes back times 10. I truly believe that.”
Families can book photo shoots through Smith’s website, the slogan of which is “providing priceless memories for deserving families.” Depending on where the family lives, their photos will be shot by Smith herself or a nearby photographer. All of the families receive a 16×20 print of their favorite photo at the end of the shoot and a short blurb about how the photographs will be posted on her website.
The nonprofit, which has become a full-time project for Smith, is planning to do even more in its future than just direct photo shoots. “We’re planning a fashion show next year that’s going to feature all kids with special needs,” she says. “It’s really just for them. They deserve to feel just like everyone else feels.”
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