Wow. Wow is really the only word I have for the last few weeks of my life. I never expected to have these opportunities to be laid in my lap as it has, and for the first time in my life, I feel that I truly have a purpose in this world. I feel that I have the opportunity to spread so much love and make a slight difference not only in my community, but across the nation. This will be a bit of a long post, so just work with me!!
Majority of you know me as a bright, happy, and outgoing lady who takes pictures of children with special needs. Who gives back to the homeless, or who visits underprivileged schools in 3rd world countries. The real me gets hidden behind the smiles, behind the beautiful children in front of the camera, and behind closed doors. The time has come to get brutally honest with all of you and let you know, that before all of this came along… I was not that bright, happy and outgoing lady. In fact, I was the exact opposite.
Rewinding back in time a bit, I’ve always had issues with feeling like I “belong”. I come from an extremely broken family which is very hard to cope with. My parents split up when I was a teenager and to add the cherry on top, when they split… my mom went away to jail for a few years. She’s always struggled with addiction and dealing with that was a task, but losing her at one of the most important times of my life was gut wrenching. My Dad was stuck raising 4 kids on his own and while he tried to do the best he could…he just couldn’t do it. I moved in with my grandparents at the age of 15 and tried to have the most “normal” life that I could, given the circumstances. I played sports, did decent in school, and never got in trouble. I shut out the reality of my life and just kept myself busy to keep time passing.
Sweet 16 rolled around and with that age, comes the boys (yippy). This is a part of my life that I really wish I could forget at times…BUT, it’s part of my story and it is part of what makes me who I am so I am learning to deal. Only the people closest to me, know this part of my life so bear with me as I type through the tears. Being this honest is not a simple task! You know, when you grow up seeing abusive relationships, dysfunction and so much hate… it somehow generates in your mind that “this is normal”. So because that’s what I spent so many years seeing….that became my normal. I ended up dating a boy that I thought I was madly in love with. Looking back, it was never love. I was craving to feel loved, accepted, wanted, adored…. But in reality, I got the exact opposite. It’s crazy what the mind is capable of tricking you into believing. A few years went by and I will never forget the very first time I felt his hands around my neck. Gasping for air and begging him to stop. We both cried and promised that it would never happen again. Well, it happened again…and again. I actually lost count of how many times I was left gasping for air, covering bruises, or curled up outside in tears. Foolishly, I went back every single time after he said he was sorry. I needed to feel wanted and since I didn’t feel that from my family, even if it came at the expense of my own safety, I was willing to accept it from him.
This went on for years before I could escape. In my mind, it was just easier for me to stay then to face the consequences of what would happen if I l left. I isolated myself from everything and everyone until rock bottom came. Arguing somehow lead to a gun being pointed at me. Directly at me. It’s weird because even with it being 10 years ago, I still remember it like it was yesterday. I got into my car, peeled off and frantically called the police. I heard a gunshot go off, and then another one. I hung up the phone before getting through to 911 and turned around. Expecting to see my boyfriend dead, I pulled around the corner to see him still standing there with the gun in his hand and a blank stare on his face. Knowing that he was alive was enough for me to turn around and get away. Unfortunately for me, this was just his way of luring me back to catch me. He got in the car and started to follow me. I had 911 on the phone, and my boyfriend chasing behind me. Luckily I lost him and a neighbor who had heard the gunshots had also called the police so they were able to get to him before he could get to me.
That is a part of my life that I tend to forget happened. Without going into much more detail and by the graces of God. It ended. It felt like a relief being able to close that book, but I still felt so abandoned and so lost. Although my relationship had been so dysfunctional and abusive, it was still my comfort zone so letting it go required a lot of praying, a lot of tears and a lot of learning.
By the time that relationship ended, my mom was home from jail and doing well. Her doing well has never lasted long but at least I had someone to love me, at least until the drugs took her away again. I graduated high school and would go with my mom living from house to house, hotel to hotel and even some nights in the car…and it didn’t matter because I knew she loved me and that’s all I wanted. I turned my head to the drug dealers, ignored the needles and pipes that I would find, faked asleep when I saw her nodding off and convinced myself things would get better. Things never got better. Over the next 8 years this went on, and even to this day, she sits behind bars. She is set to get out of jail and go to a long term treatment facility in the near future. I have finally learned that yes, she will always be my mother, but I can no longer drown in her disease. Helping someone who does not want help will drive you to the brim of insanity and even death. There were many times that I felt ending my life would be easier than trying to save hers. Addiction is a horrible disease that effects so many and I truly pray for her recovery but I no longer beg and yearn for her love. Some days are harder than others but my photography has 100% been a coping mechanism for me.
Okay, okay, okay… I did it! I shared a part of my life that I keep buried and away from everyone. Phew, that was not easy to type but I am happy I did it. I think it’s so important for people following this journey to know where it came from, who I am, and how I got here.
Now, let’s get to some of the happy stuff!! Fast forwarding a few years, I ended up in a new relationship, a new place and a new state of mind! My mom was away in jail, and life went on. I lived with my sister Melissa for a bit and then went off to get my own place. Life was good. In between all of this craziness my sister fought and beat cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) not only once, but twice. Talk about strength. After the second time, life got really good. We started going out more, she wore her wig and fake eye lashes and the boys just loved it… she was traveling all over and all of the bad seemed to disappear.
My mom came home again and life stayed normal for a bit, but obviously based off my story thus far, you can probably tell, this never lasts. My sister started to feel a tingle in her toes one day. That tingle quickly traveled up higher and higher… and over the next few days she became completely paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors and hospitals were baffled. It was weeks before we received her diagnosis. Transverse Myelitis. Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of one level, or segment, of the spinal cord. Her life was robbed. Her independence was taken away. She was a 2x college graduate on her way to nursing school…and all of it was stripped over a matter of days. My sister, who was once a bright, vibrant, and all around positive person, became the exact opposite…and rightfully so.
I knew in my mind that my mother’s sobriety wouldn’t last so I had to figure out a way to get my sister into a safer place. She was renting a 3rd floor apartment that she had to be carried in and out of, and I knew that this couldn’t go on. It was not only dangerous but it was impossible to get her to and from appointments, hospitals, or anywhere for that matter without having someone there to carry her up and down. With the help and support of friends and family, a few fundraisers, we were able to find her a similarly priced apartment that was lower level. It was not accessible by any means, but at least she could get in and out. She was no longer able to work, so paying the rent was a huge burden every month, but we always figured it out.
In February of 2011, I found out I was pregnant. On top of everything going on, I was extremely scared to share the news with my sister. All she’s ever wanted in life was kids, a family, and a husband. I felt like giving her this news while she was lying in a hospital bed fighting a rare neuroglial disease would be like a slap in the face. Hell, I was scared myself. My son was not planned, my relationship was rocky… but I know that God makes no mistakes so I started planning to become a Mommy! Surprisingly, when I shared the news with her, she was excited. She is an amazing aunt and I truly believe when the time is right, she will be an even more amazing Mother to her own.
March of 2011 I submitted an application to Chive Charities on behalf of my sister. She was so deserving of something good to happen in her life. Let me tell you how amazing God is. Chive Charities chose my sister as a recipient and they flew in from Texas to surprise her with the news. A few weeks later when they launched her story…it went viral. Strangers from all over the world were touched by her strength. Over $450,000.00 was raised for my sister. We were literally amazed watching donations pour in. We went from fearing that she would end up in a nursing home to house hunting within a matter of hours. Shocked was an understatement. Fast forwarding a bit more, she ended up buying a fixer upper and did just that. People from all over came and pitched in with the demolition and remolding of her home. She now lives in and owns her very own handicapped accessible home. While she still deals with struggles every day due to her disease, the fear of ending up in a nursing home is gone. I knew when this happened, that I would spend the rest of my life finding somehow, some way to give back. I just didn’t know exactly how. Not yet at least.
November 7th 2012. I gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby boy, Andrew! Becoming a Mother has by far been the most amazing part of my life. The love that I had craved my entire life was finally fulfilled when I touched my sons face for the first time. I knew how much my son needed me and how much I needed him and at that moment… nothing else mattered. My relationship with my son’s father failed. No matter how many times we tried, we failed. That has been a very hard pill to swallow given the circumstances. I never wanted my son to feel an ounce of abandonment like I had and in a way, I felt like I had failed him. Over time, I’ve learned to look at that differently and realize that as long as my son is receiving love from his Mommy and Daddy… he will NEVER feel the way I did. Andrew has an amazing father and I know that he will understand when he gets older why Mommy and Daddy had to separate. I just pray he doesn’t feel pain from it. ALLLLLL of these series of events have lead up to who I am now and where I am going with my life. I picked up a camera for the first time in June 2015. I started to self-teach myself the ins and outs and just practicing every chance I got. I started taking paid shoots a few months after I learned my camera more and my little business started to blossom.
About 7 months ago, I read a story online that completely changed my way of thinking. The direction I wanted my business to go and just my outlook on life in general. The story talked about a Mother and daughter who booked a photoshoot in their hometown. They paid the photographer and were set to do their “Mommy & Me” photos. A few days prior to the shoot, the mother informed the photographer that her daughter has Down syndrome and might require a bit more patience and time than the “average” child. The photographer refunded her and did not take them as clients. THIS was the moment it clicked in my head. THIS was how I knew I could give back. THIS is where Lenses For Love began. I put a post on Facebook offering to donate 3 shoots per month to special needs families in my area. The outpour of requests and messages was completely insane. Some families just wanting to say thank you. Some families expressing how this is an everyday fear for them with the world we live in, and some families wanting to book. I started drawing 3 names a month and donating shoots to these families.
I spent years being angry and hating the things and people that put me through hard times… only to realize that I could never get to these current happy times without all of those hard times. I’ve learned that strength comes from those struggles. When you start to see your struggles as opportunities to become a better person your thinking will change from “I can’t do this” to “I must do this.”
The response from families of the special needs community has been overwhelming. Especially with all of the media attention lately. I started to receive hundreds of requests from across the nation. So in order to maintain my business and personal life, I’ve created Lenses for Love (lensesforlove.com) where families can request sessions and follow my journey! I want to build a platform for families to be able to connect with photographers in their area and not have to feel uncomfortable or scared to put their child’s story or battle out there to be ridiculed. It’s a safe space for everyone.
I know that by donating my time and service, I am giving these families something they can hold on to forever. So when I shoot a terminally ill child, or a kid with a heart wrenching story… I hold on to the purpose behind what I’m doing and I TRY to cry after the shoot. (Doesn’t always work)
The most important thing that I’ve tried to remind myself and everyone who has wanted to join this mission is to learn to love with an open heart and not judge people for what they look like or appear to be on the outside. At the end of the day, these kids are stronger, braver and more resilient than any ‘normal’ child I have ever met. They have taught me so much about myself, about my life and about looking at everything with the glass half full. What these families have given me vs. the small gift I’m giving them could never even compare.
SO when people ask me Why did you start this journey Lenses For Love. There is my answer. This is just the beginning of Lenses For Love. In the future I hope to be able to connect special needs families and photographers from all over the world and break that barrier of what our society considers “beautiful”. The time is now. Our world is surrounded by hate… the only way to change that is to spread love.
For more information about Stephanie or for media queries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.