Thursday, December 9

Help Portrait Central Florida 2010

As I was winding down, this past weekend, after a long day spent at the Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless, with our 2010 Help Portrait Event, it gave me some time for reflection on the day's events. Taking a long, hot shower, soothing my aching muscles (yeah, I know, I really need to get in better shape to pull a 12 hour work day!), playing with my puppies and kitty, who obviously missed me for the day, and snuggling into my nice warm bed for the evening, all gave me time to roll the day around in my brain a few times and reflect.

This is the second year Help Portrait has been in existence, and my second year working with the Help Portrait Central Florida team. I blogged about my experience with our maiden event last year, and much was learned from our first ever HP event. And yet, I found this past Saturday, that there was still much more to learn, and that each event will have different ebbs and flows, and different people, with varying stories, whose lives will be effected.

For those that aren't familiar with HP, and what it is all about, it is an idea thought up by celebrity Nashville photographer Jeremy Cowart, that in just a matter of weeks went viral, across the globe, and came to fruition in a very short period of time. It had photographers from all over the world joining forces within their communities, in its first ever event of 2009.

Photographer Jeffri going over details of the upcoming day with Site Leader Debbie.

While the overall reaction to last year's events was extremely positive, I do remember reading some comments online from a few naysayers and pessimists who poo-pooed the idea, saying, "what's the big deal, they are just taking pictures of people, who could probably use so much more." This bothered me a bit, because I know what it was like, being there in the midst of the whole thing and interacting with the clients. I think those naysayers were totally missing the essence of the entire Help Portrait movement.

It's great to give donations of money and goods to organizations that need them, and believe me, they do need them, especially right now in these economic times. But, what about the human touch? The interaction with people who just want to feel loved and special, not be looked down at because of their circumstances? People who are often overlooked and dismissed, without a single thought, by the general public. Why are so few people willing to actually give their TIME in this day and age? These things are important to them too. I can attest to that, from watching it first hand.

Photographers and volunteers getting an orientation before the event begins.

In my particular instances, I worked with the homeless, both in 2009, and again in 2010. I have worked with the homeless many times in the past, volunteering over the course of many years to help prepare and serve food at homeless shelters in my area. But, these past two years, working with the homeless, through the HP events, have opened my eyes to the reality that a lot of people just don't realize. The homeless simply aren't what they used to be! The face of homelessness has changed immensely with the downturn in our economy and loss of jobs throughout the nation. The idea that the homeless are all drug addicts, alcoholics, or mentally ill, just does not apply in a vast majority of instances anymore.

Over the past two years, I have met families, with children, who, just a few mere months before, were living like you and I. They may have been living paycheck to paycheck, but they had a home, food on their tables, and a place to take a hot shower, whenever they wanted. A place of their own to tuck their kids into bed. A place where they felt safe. But, the loss of a job, a divorce, a major illness, or some other unforeseen tragedy, thrust them into a situation many never, in their wildest dreams, felt they would be in.

They are families – mothers and fathers with kids, single moms, and yes, a lot (surprisingly, a lot) of single dads – doing their best to take care of their kids, in situations the could never have imagined, before being struck by circumstances that put them where they are now. They weren't drug addicts or alcoholics, who had no one but themselves to worry about or take care of. Not at all. They were quite a different type of people. The type we just don't normally consider homeless in our society.

Client viewing her photo session.

The idea of being fussed over, having their makeup done by a professional makeup artist, having their portraits done by photographers, who were willing to not just snap a shutter, but spend time with them, getting to know their families, and talking to them or playing with their children, was overwhelming for some.

I overheard one mother tell a member of our HP team how she had lost everything (I am not certain exactly how) and how she now felt blessed to be able to have a portrait of her children again.

I witnessed a young woman, who kept saying she was going to hate her pictures, gasp in amazement when she saw the previews. She couldn't believe she looked so beautiful.

I met another woman, slightly older than me, who looked and dressed no different than the people I go to church with every Sunday. She previewed her portrait pictures with me, and I must say, they were gorgeous. She looked like a lady who I would live next door to. Not someone who was down on their luck and in a situation they were trying to pull themselves up from.

Many of the people I met throughout the day also had to leave to go to jobs, after their pictures were taken, or had jobs during the week they went to. They weren't lazy people, not willing to work or pay their way. But, what many often forget, is with the average two bedroom rental in Orlando going for about $800-$850 a month, or even more, depending on the location, someone who is making even above minimum wage may be hard pressed to afford rent on their salary, and still be able to provide food for their children, pay for day care while they work, and a car and gas, to get to and from work.

It's a cycle that's hard to overcome and rise up from. I am very impressed with the services that the Coalition in Orlando provides for these families, from caseworkers to job training, in an attempt to help them move their lives forward, one day at a time.

Waiting with anticipation of their photographs!

While I certainly don't know their stories intimately, I was able to glean an awful lot from just watching them. I was especially struck by a very handsome, and nicely dressed young man, and his beautiful daughter, who I would guess to be about 5 or 6. She was dressed in a beautiful sundress, and had just a slightly noticeable hint of pink eyeshadow on her eyes, for her pictures. She was so cute you wanted to squeeze her! It appeared like it was just a dad and daughter, trying to get back on their feet. They had so many wonderful pictures taken of them, and they were only allotted two prints of their session.

He asked about getting more, and said he would be willing to pay for them. But, that is not what the event was about. We were not out to take people's money. At the same time, I felt bad, because there really were more than just two wonderful pics of this adorable little family. He then asked about purchasing a CD, which I explained we also weren't selling, although one is provided to the Coaltion at the end of the event, of all the pictures taken that day. Then, in almost a last ditch effort to be able to hold onto those precious memories of his baby girl, he quietly asked about putting them on a flash drive for him. How could I possibly say no to that?

So, he went back to his room and brought me a flash drive. I was able to transfer all the wonderful photographs of his baby girl onto the drive for him in just a few seconds. As I plugged in the flash drive, I happened to quickly glance down at what was on it, and the only thing there was obviously a file with his resume on it. This was not a man looking for a handout. This was a man who, again, could be my next door neighbor, who suddenly finds themselves in a situation they never thought they would be in. It kind of took my breath away a bit to realize this.

Photographers Jennifer and Cynthia waiting for more clients.

While I certainly encourage those who can to give donations and money to organizations that need it so badly, I would like to also extend a challenge to anyone reading this.

This holiday season (or anytime during the year – we don't just have to be generous once a year), think about giving much more than money or goods. Please consider giving your time. Not only is it rewarding for those you are willing to spend that time with, but it is so rewarding for you as well.

Don't just donate food or money to your local soup kitchen, ask how you can get involved in helping prepare or serve food on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Talk to the people you are serving. Make them feel like someone really does care about them.

Don't just give money to a man on a corner with a sign, but offer to buy him a cup of coffee and breakfast, and then spend time across the table from him, talking over that cup of coffee. You may actually be surprised when you hear his story. It is probably not at all what you were thinking when you initially saw him!

Don't just wave at your elderly neighbor, who lives alone, from across a fence. Take her some cookies or a pie and introduce yourself. Find out if you can help her with transportation, or if she needs any repairs done around her house.

Don't just anonymously donate goods to a needy family in your church, to make their children's Christmas better, and leave it at that. Befriend them. Talk to them. Get to know them on a personal level. Organize a play date for their children and yours. Meet them at a park, or offer to pick them up if they have no transportation. While the toys and gifts will certainly be appreciated, the time you are willing to spend with them will mean so much more.

I am grateful to God for everything that I have and am able to do. But, it is all too easy for us to forget, as we live our comfortable and complacent lives, that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Nelson putting some finishing touches on portraits back in post processing.

I can't thank enough the generous photographers, makeup artists, and volunteers that came out to help at the event on Saturday. Many were faces I recognized from the year before, and many were new faces. Most of those new faces said they would be back again next year, it was such a life changing experience. Your pictures were truly amazing! The look on the faces of the clients, as they saw them for the first time, was priceless. The volunteers who worked tirelessly running back flash cards and clients to post processing were appreciated more than you know.

A huge thank you to all who worked so hard in the planning of the event as well. Without your tireless phone calls and efforts, for months leading up to the event, this could not happen. Many people forget the "behind the scenes" people who don't ask for credit, but quietly make it all happen and come together.

A big thank you to the staff and residents of the Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless, for welcoming us again for another year of portraits. It was great to see your smiling faces again.

Another thank you to our fantastic makeup artists, who made the women feel so special and pretty for the day. The transformations were amazing. It was like watching a butterfly emerge from it's chrysallis. :)

A big ole thank you to Christine Dunn and Universal Event Photography, for sending Gabrielle, and your equipment, out to handle post processing and on site printing of the photographs. I actually was able to spend quite a bit of time working with Gabrielle and, let me say, she is a true professional, who knows how to stay cool under fire, and was an absolute joy to work with!

Gabrielle previewing photographs with clients.

And a HUGE thank you to Chick-Fil-A, for sponsoring the event and providing 400 boxed lunches for the volunteers, residents and staff on Saturday. Your willingness to get involved made the day even more special for the many families involved.

Addendum: As I was writing this post earlier this week, I was forwarded a link to a blog posting by the Coalition for the Homeless, on the event. It really brought home what I was saying about how important a picture really can be to someone who might otherwise not have the opportunity for a holiday portrait. Please take time to read the posting. I also love how they used some of the beautiful portraits that were taken that day, to illustrate the blog! :)

Photographer Frederick waiting with his adorable client to see her final photographs.

Waiting to see photogaphs!

A happy client giving a taped interview on her experience at the event.

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