Meet Gemma!! Gemma is the definition of TINY BUT MIGHTY! She was born 15 weeks early due to severe preeclampsia on June 23rd, 2016. Her parents were warned that she might not survive delivery and that they shouldn’t expect to hear her cry, but after an emergency c-section, she let out a brief but loud cry. From that moment, her parents knew they had a fighter on their hands. Gemma has proved her resilience and strength every day since she was born.

 

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Gemma was born with CLD (chronic lung disease), weighed 1 lb 4 oz. at birth and was 11 inches long. She is still currently in the NICU at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She has had PDA ligation surgery to close a valve in her heart. She has also miraculously had five normal head sonograms, and is being fed breast milk through an NG tube. Her biggest challenge is respiratory. She was initially placed on a high frequency ventilator after birth, and then had a brief stint on a conventional ventilator after her surgery. Thankfully, Gemma’s mom, Leighann was able to have some valuable skin to skin time with her while she was on the conventional vent.

 

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Gemma’s journey will be long but she has shown the world that although she was born tiny (Currently 10lbs 8.oz at 5.5 months old)… she is strong and ready to fight!!  Keep Gemma in your prayers in hopes that she will be able to come home sooner than later!!

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Meet Channing!! Channing’s Mom, Mia had a perfectly normal and happy pregnancy. At 20 weeks her doctor informed her that she had soft markers or Down syndrome (missing nasal bone, small stomach and small abdomen).  Channing was born via C-section at 36 weeks.  When Channing was delivered, they noticed a more serious issue. Her mouth would not open at all. It would only open enough to be intubated.  After 2 weeks of being intubated and still no answers, they placed a trach and a G-tube to continue assisting in her breathing and feedings.  Channing had a jaw distraction at just 3 months old. She spent 8 LONG months in the NICU and 1 month at Mt. Washington before she was FINALLY able to come home at 9 months old.

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There is still no diagnosis for Channing. Her parents have spent endless time doing genetic testing with no answers. The plan is to continue to watch Channing grow and see what changes. They have suggested Moebius syndrome but still not sure.  Channing has made a lot of progress since coming home. She now plays in her beautiful hair, sucks on her fingers and follows movements with her eyes.  Channing is the little sister to a great big brother named Cameren.

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She  was a pleasure to photograph and literally one of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. If you or someone you know has ever experienced something similar with their child, please email me at Hello@LensesForLove.com to put you in contact with Channing’s mom, Mia.

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Meet Jake!! This young man is the definition of a TROOPER. Jake was born 100% healthy and happy. At 5 weeks old, Jake’s Mom Joy had left to run a few errands.  While gone, Jake’s dad became violent and tried to kill him . After Jake was brought to the hospital that night, Joy received news that he would not make it due to the extent of the brain damage caused. Jake is now 16 years old.  In Joy’s words, Satan did this to Jake but God has given him life. Jake has surpassed every obstacle that has been thrown his way. He continues to prove doctors wrong with the progress he’s made. Jake is not someone to cry when he is in pain. A few years ago, when Jake was being lifted to be put into the bed, his femur broke. Joy told us that “he didn’t even flinch. He just kept a smile on his face”

 

 

 

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Jake is the light of the room. When you are around him, all you can do is smile. Although Jake is nonverbal, Mom says he definitely knows how to make you laugh and smile. Joy says she could not picture her life any other way. He has brought so much love and life to her.

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Jade Koetz (http://www.jadenikkolephoto.com) had the honor of photographing him and his lovely family in late September. Keep Jake in your prayers as he continues to make strides in a positive direction!!

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Photographer: Jade Koetz is the owner of Jade Nikkole Photography. She currently resides in Severn, MD. She is a self taught photographer that started out by simply photographing her sister and friends. She understands that photography is so much more than snapping pictures and delivering them. She says “My favorite part is being able to capture the meaning behind an image”.

 

 

 

 

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In honor or breast cancer awareness month, I decided to switch it up a little bit this past weekend! As most of you know, normally my donated sessions are to children with special needs, disabilities or severe injuries. but not this time around. I would like to introduce Sommer!!  Sommer was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago and is fighting it like a champ…and with such grace, might I add!!

I’m so happy we were able to doll her up and give her some pictures to see how strong and amazing she is. I can’t thank Francisca Rogel enough for once again donating her time and amazing make up services to make this shoot possible. If you ever need a make up artist n the DMV area, she is your gal (Her IG is linked)!!!

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Sommer reached out to me when she got wind of Lenses For Love a few months ago. PLOT TWIST…she did not reach out for me on behalf of herself. Sommer runs a speech therapy program for children with special needs (clearly it’s fate that we crossed paths). She originally reached out to me requesting that I do pictures at her annual holiday party for all of her kiddos. In getting to know her a bit more she told me a bit about herself and her diagnosis with breast cancer. I offered to not only donate my services for the holiday party but also a donated session for just HER. Sommer has such a kind heart and free spirit. It’s a blessing that we were able to connect.  I’m so happy to have given her something to look back on and remember just how amazingly strong she was through her fight!! 

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1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Sommer’s doctor told her don’t worry about the lump in her breast. Months went by before she got a second opinion and was diagnosed with breast cancer. LADIES, GET YOUR MAMMOGRAMS.

Please feel free to SHARE, SHARE, SHARE these pictures around, keep Sommer in your prayer as she continues her treatments and per usual #BeKindSmileOn

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Everyone meet Smiley Riley. This name fits her absolutely perfect as she was nothing but smiles during our entire session together. Her sweet smile and waves are sure to steal your heart!! I am happy to have crossed paths with this beautiful family. Riley was born in December of 2009, and had her first surgery before she was even a day old. Riley was born with Spinia Bifida and needed to have surgery right away to close her spine. Riley ended up spending 4.5 months in the NICU and having an additional 6 surgeries before she would get to go home. Talk about a TROOPER!  At one month old Riley was diagnosed with a rare chromosome disorder, Tetrasomy 18p (T18p), that is known affect about 250 families worldwide.

T18p is a chromosomal condition that affects many parts of the body. This condition usually causes feeding difficulties in infancy, delayed development, intellectual disability that is often mild to moderate but can be severe, changes in muscle tone, distinctive facial features, and other birth defects. However, the signs and symptoms vary among affected individuals.

Despite all the surgeries and challenges that Riley has faced and continues to face…her strength and smile remain. Everyone deserves a chance to meet this little girl. I will never forget her smile, waves and hugs!!

 

 

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Everyone meet Khye!! Khye, who is 19 years old, has a rare genetic condition called Hunter’s Syndrome also known as MPS II. Khye’s Mother started being concerned about him when he was about 6 months old but doctors kept telling her that he was fine. Nothing was wrong. Family members kept telling her that she was overreacting because she was a nurse and always thought of the worse possibility because of the medical things she had seen.

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Finally when Khye was about 18 months after his mother pushing to have him seen by a geneticist that a coworker recommended to her, he was diagnosed. The doctor took one look at him and was able to narrow it down to one of two diseases. Neither disease had a good prognosis. She said she really doesn’t remember crying at the diagnosis but more felt relieved that someone finally listened to her. Someone believed her. No one could give her definitive life expectancy and at that time of diagnosis there were no treatments and no cures. It was estimated that Khye would live to around 8 years old or at the most early teens.

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With his condition he is missing an enzyme that breaks down a substance in his body called mucopolysaccharides. Without being able to break this substance down and remove it from the body it causes a build up everywhere in his body causing him to lose function of everything. It builds up in the heart, lungs, joints, brain etc. Most of the children with this condition would die from the buildup of tissue in their airway literally causing their airway to collapse or totally close up. Overtime Khye has gone from an overactive little guy running around driving people crazy because he couldn’t sit still to now a child who can no longer do much on his own. He can no longer talk, laugh or even smile. He can’t feed himself, doesn’t have much use of his hands and over this last year has been losing the ability to walk and struggling to sit up on his own. He receives weekly enzyme replacement, a treatment that got approved in 2007. The enzyme replacement doesn’t get into his brain so he continues to deteriorate.

Despite what the doctors has told Khyes mother about his life expectancy, she  never really thought about it before this year. They just lived, loved and cherished moments that much more. She tries to continue to give him as many different experiences as possible. Khye has an older sister, Joscelyne, that he would follow around everywhere when he was younger. Now, he is also the Uncle to a 19 month old little guy that adores him!

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As a young child Khye loved the beach. He would run and jump in the waves. He had such an infectious smile and laughter. Khye’s mom still tries to get him to the beach as much as possible, even though he can no longer show his enjoyment of the beach anymore. His mom says “I know he is still in there and I just know he still loves it.”

Khye’s Mom says “I am so thankful for Lenses For Love for matching us up with the photographer, Anastasia. She took some amazing photos and never looked discouraged or inpatient with us. The pictures will forever be dear to my heart. Even though I hate to type these words, this year has been tough for Khye and I know the reality is that I have to start preparing for Khye to leave me one day soon. I know it sounds crazy after caring for a child with so many needs for 19 years but Hunter’s Syndrome is just getting real for me. I am so thankful that I will have these photos of my perfect little family to hold on to and cherish forever!”

To find out more information about Hunter’s Syndrome and other similar conditions go to MPSsociety.org.

unnamedPhotographer: Anastasia Lusignan started photography when she was 16 years old because of her Mother who is a professional  photographer. She was an apprentice and assistant for her Mom for years. Over those years she took in and learned as much about photography as possible before making it a business of her own. Anastasia was born and raised In Rhode Island but relocated to North Carolina after she got married in April to her husband who is in the marine corps. She is a public relations major with a love for photography and giving back in and around her community. She just got her photography business rolling a year ago and hopes to continue to grow. For more information on Anastasia and her photography business please visit http://www.anastasiadawnphotography.com/

 

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Where to start?? What are the words to even begin to describe the strength this child has. The words to describe the emotions that went through me after gifting this shoot….Everyone Meet Viviana. The sleeping beauty. Before continuing to read, I am asking everyone to take 30 seconds of silence to pray for Viviana. Pray out loud for her to wake up and smile again. Pray for peace for her mother who is fighting endlessly to get her daughter through this nightmare… and then give thanks for your good AND BAD days. One thing I’ve learned through this journey is that my bad days could NEVER compare to what some others are facing.

dsc_9973Eight-month-old Viviana Claire was inside asleep when her mother stepped outside to her car for a minute to place her phone on the charger. The power happened to be out that night so they had a candle lit in the house. Erika quickly stepped outside to charge her phone in case of emergencies  and when she looked back, the house was engulfed in flames. Erika rushed into the house instantly but could not get through the flames. She suffered burns to her face and hands trying to save her daughter and dog. Their dog, Polo never left Viviana’s side to come downstairs. Not once. He stayed on top of her protecting the entire left side of her body. First responders quickly arrived and rescued Viviana and Polo. Unfortunately, Polo didn’t make it out alive. He is a hero…a hero that saved Viviana’s life. Viviana was rushed to Johns Hopkins PICU in critical care where she suffered burns to 20% of her body.

Viviana is still fighting and proving doctors wrong every day. Doctors said she would never make it through a surgery… she has now made it through 4 and is continuing to show signs of improvement. While medical advice says she won’t wake up from this… I am a firm believer that it is just that….ADVICE. Advice only goes so far before the man upstairs steps in and works his wonders. He is the healer of all healers. I need everyone to pray for God to heal Viviana’s brain. Physically her burns are healing and she is looking better every day. Her brain needs to heal now.

Nobody could imagine what this mother is going through every day.  While it was a tough shoot for me to get through, knowing that I was able to provide the family with a small bit of joy since this tragedy happened makes it SO unbelievably worth it. These photos truly show A MOTHERS LOVE. The bond between a mother and daughter is unbreakable  and I am so glad I could capture that on camera. When you see the battles that others are facing… a few things happen. You stop, pray and thank god for another day. PRAY for Viviana and Erika. They need us.

 

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#VivStrong

#WakeUpViv

 

http://www.wbaltv.com/news/infant-seriously-injured-in-baltimore-house-fire/41204300

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Meet Ezekiel!!  His story is one of perseverance, love and compassion.  During pregnancy Ezekiel was not expected to survive yet he’s a fighter, and it seems the doctors didn’t know that.  Born at 37 weeks Ezekiel  entered the world and surprised everyone with his will to live.  The medical condition left him blind in both eyes and deaf in his left ear.  His body acts on its own  and his facial expressions continue to become more animated.  This is a big deal for Ezekiel, because his potential is unknown and each new movement is one more sign he is exceeding all previous expectations. Ezekiel requires help for everything in his life and he has an amazing family that is willing to support him at every turn.  His mother gave up a nursing and teaching career to stay home and help Ezekiel meet his full potential.  His father is a counselor and they are hands down two of the nicest people I have met.  Ezekiel’s family is one of support, love and strength and that couldn’t have been more prevalent on the beach in Huntington.  It is the love and support he receives on a daily basis that just helps him push past any preconceived limitations.

14188475_166325373774321_5398521958223453912_ounspecified_1unspecified_2unspecified_3unspecifiedAbout Steven Houston:

14339809_10153684642190947_1769221173_oMy name is Steven Houston and I’m just a guy with a love for photography, food, handcrafted items, flying, & my family.  Residing in beautiful San Diego, I don’t have to venture far to find my inspiration for new photos. However, that doesn’t keep me from wanting to travel all over the world to capture moments. Whether I’m getting a close-up shot or a breathtaking  aerial view, I put my passion into my work and find each frame a welcome challenge
When I’m not behind the camera, I’m making a mess in the kitchen, answering to  my dogs’ every demand, spoiling my wife with chocolate chip cookies, and spending way too much time learning new things on YouTube.

Steven Houston Photography | San Diego, California

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Meet the beautiful Selena!! Selena was born in September of 2006, and was perfect in every way. Her parents noticed when Selena was a month old she could not turn her head to one side. She was diagnosed with Torticollis, and needed therapy to correct it. At 3 months old, they noticed her feet started to turn inward. In February of 2007, she was diagnosed with positional club feet. Selena spent 3 months in casts, and had a surgery to release the tendons in both feet. During this time her parents realized that Selena was not meeting her muscle mile stones, which lead them to yet another specialist. Selena under went her 2nd surgery in June 2007 for a muscle biopsy. THIS is where Selena’s journey really begins.

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Selena was diagnosed with a rare form of Congenital Muscular Dystrophy (Merosin Negative). This condition  is a hereditary muscle disorder often noticed at birth or within the first few months of life. There are at least 30 different types of congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD) and each has a different genetic cause and a different range of symptoms, but they are all present at birth or soon after and primarily affect the muscles used for movement. MDC1A is one of the most common types of congenital muscular dystrophy.  At the moment there is no cure for congenital muscular dystrophyfor  In Selena’s 6 years of life she has had 5 pneumonia’s and one aspiration pneumonia. In August of 2012, Christina (Selena’s Mom) went in to wake Selena, and found her unresponsive. This was their biggest fear, and they were living it. This event lead them down a very scary path, and their possibility of losing her was very real. All of the things they had been told over the years to stay away from medically were thrown out the window that day, and all they wanted to do was save their daughters life. They put Selena in God’s hands, and asked their family and friends to pray. Their first night in the PICU, they watched the doctor standing at the foot of the bed watching their baby girl. Christina said, you could tell by looking at the doctor that they had given up on her. She told them not to count their baby girl out, there were people all around the world praying for her, and that she would show him the way.

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During all of this Selena had a stroke, was having blood pressure problems, and was not breathing on her own. Seven days after all this started, the doctors were able to pull Selena’s breathing tube. This was a very happy moment for the Houck family and the staff members who had been there the day Selena came in. She had doctor’s and nurse’s in and out of her room to see the little girl they almost lost. That day their daughter restored their faith in miracles. Selena is a HERO. They spent 3 months in the hospital and rehab center, and during this time Selena slowly came back to them. Selena has fought very hard to be where she is today. She still has a long road ahead of her, but she always does it with a smile.

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I hope Selena’s story and smile brings you as much happiness as it does to me. This little girl is moving mountains and I am so blessed to be a part of her life!!!

 

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I had the honor of doing my very first shoot for the Lenses for Love movement. I cannot tell you all how much fun I had getting to know Isaac and his family. When I walked to his car, he was ALL smiles, he was ready for a fun day. His mom Kim and little brother Eli were with him as well. Isaac and Eli are your typical little boys, running around as fast as they could away from mom and from the camera. But we managed to get them to smile a few times. I had so much fun following him around. There were moments he was in deep thought if only I knew what he was thinking at that very moment, only then would someone who has been through what Isaac has been through understand. Isaac is only 7 years old and literally can’t stop smiling he truly showed me the meaning of being happy and just love what life has to give. Never once in the time he was playing did he ever complain about anything. I will forever be grateful for having met this wonderful family. Thank you Lenses For Love for this life changing opportunity.

About Isaac: 

Isaac was born weighing in at 3 lbs 3 ounces at 31 weeks.  He was born with a birth defect called Esophageal Atresia (EA), he had an incomplete esophagus.  Early attempts to correct the birth defect resulted in paralyzing his vocal cords, because of that he received his trach at about 4 months old.

They found a surgeon in Minnesota who specialized in EA and took him there shortly after he was trached.  In total Isaac spent 11 out of his first 13 months in the ICU between VA and Minnesota.  During that time he was kept completely paralyzed and sedated for a total of 3 months while his esophagus was grown for him.

Once his esophagus was repaired they thought they were home free – but they were not.  Isaac suffered from recurrent issues, risking his health.

In time they were able to find another team in Cincinnati that performed his most recent surgery (number 22!) and he had his esophagus replaced with a piece of his colon.

Through it all Isaac has proven to be a force to be reckoned with.  He is incredibly resilient, loving and compassionate.  He is a big brother to his four year old brother, Elijah and little brother to his 14 year old sister, Talia.

He is in the first grade and absolutely loves life, he has an amazing smile and is full of life. His mom says “he taught us how to appreciate even the littlest things.”

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About M.Shakir Photography:

u818850252-o11119031-53-2My name is Maria Shakir; I am a stay at home mom and natural light photographer. I was raised in New York and currently reside in Leesburg, VA with my husband and our four amazing children.

I have donated my time to many organizations, such as those who work with cancer patients, babies in the NICU and low income families. I feel very fortunate to be able to give back with my talents any chance I can. Nothing makes me happier then to see the expressions on my client’s faces and the feedback they give which puts all my hard work into perspective.
Photography allows me to see things which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. It has made me a happier person through working with others and allowing them to see their own unique beauty. It allows me to capture the expression of emotion, and record the passage of time. Photography allows me to see the world change in so many ways, to watch many children grow and hang on to a precious memory. I can summarize my love for photography with one quote “if I could give you one thing in life, I would give you the ability to see yourself through my eyes, only then would you realize how special you truly are.”

 

Photographer | http://mshakirphotography.com/

Session Location | Sterling, Virginia

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Meet Natalie!! Natalie & her family came to Annapolis from Delaware for their shoot and they were such a joy!!! Natalie is a  complete ray of sunshine in this dark world that we live in. She had a rough start to life with a major open heart surgery at just 11 weeks old and quite a few  complications but clearly none of that has held her back.

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She is a loving sister, daughter and friend. Natalie has Down Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21. Now personally, if you ask me… whoever named this condition “down syndrome” had things mixed up. It should have been named UP syndrome. She was nothing but smiles and giggles through our entire shoot. The complete opposite of down. She is such a trooper. Everyone needs a Natalie in their lives!!!

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Photographer: Stephanie Smith

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Meet Johanna!!

I first heard of Johanna’s (aka JoJo) story about a month ago when her Momma, Kristina, messaged me. She had saw the viral video and more than anything just wanted to say thank you. As I scrolled through her message and read her daughters story and saw her pictures, I knew I had to donate a shoot to them. This little girl has endured so much and deserved a day to be pampered! I contacted a friend (Francisca Rogel) out of DC who is an amazing make up artist and she came down the day of their shoot and donated her services not only to JoJo but to her Mom as well. They both looked and felt amazing.

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Heres her story…
Jojo is 7 years old and is a first grader at St. Leonard Elementary in Calvert County, MD. Jojo has a rare progressive genetic neurodegenerative condition called Metachromatoc Leukodystrophy, or MLD for short. MLD is caused by the lack of an important enzyme called arylsulfatase A (ARSA). Because this enzyme is missing, chemicals called sulfatides build up in the body and damage the nervous system and internal organs. In particular, the buildup of these chemicals cause demyelination in the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system. The disease is so rare, that most children are misdiagnosed for months, allowing the disease to progress. By the time a diagnosis is finally given, it is usually too late for treatment. Thankfully, this was not the case for Jojo. Jojo’s mother, Kristina, knew something was not right when she began to notice her daughter having balance and fine and gross motor difficulties when she was in kindergarten. She went to many different doctors looking for answers, only to be misdiagnosed with ADHD. After many weeks of waiting, an MRI of Jojo’s brain was performed. The results suggesting MLD were given, but only a blood test would confirm. On August 27th, 2015, Jojo was diagnosed with Juvenile MLD.

This happy, healthly, perfect 6 year old little girl was just given a death sentence. There is no cure. Jojo’s mom was told to go home, and make her child comfortable. Kristina knew that was not an option. She researched the internet for specialists in MLD, and found the worlds most renowned specialist in Pittsburgh, PA- Dr. Maria Escolar. She made an appointment with her clinic, The program for the Study of Neurodevelopment in Rare Disorders, for that Monday. It was determined that Jojo was a candidate for the only available treatment known- a stem cell transplant, which would slow down the progression of the disease and prolong her life. However, they were told that Jojo would lose her ability to walk 4-6 weeks after transplant, and could lose her ability to talk, eat, smile and see. Kristina knew this was her only chance at saving her daughter. Although there are no guarantees, and many risks, Jojo began her transplant process on 10/01/2015 at the Childrens Hospital of PIttsburgh. She had 2 central lines placed in her chest for medication administration. She would go on to endure 2 weeks of reduced intensity chemotherapy, followed by her transplant on 10/16/2015, or her “re-birthday” as they like to call it. Her transplant doctor, Dr. Mark, kept Jojo very healthy their entire 6 month stay. Jojo was finally released to go home on 03/24/2016. At 10 months post transplant, Jojo has surpassed all of the doctors expectations. They call her a real life miracle. She has proven them wrong in so many aspects, particularly with her walking ability. This girl continues to walk, talk, laugh, learn and thrive After taking a year long leave of absence from school, she was released to return to the 1st grade starting on 08/29/2016.

Although MLD has taken so much from Jojo, and has put her through more than most adults go through in their lifetime, it has never slowed her down. Her smile will light up any room the moment she walks in. She has never let MLD define her, and with her positive attitude, spunky personality, and the continued outstanding care she received from Dr. Escolar, Dr. Mark and CHP, I know she never will. Kristina says, “Without Dr. Escolar and Dr. Mark, I don’t know where my daughter would be today. They saved her life. And they allowed me to continue to be a mom to my baby girl”.

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Everyone meet Shane Lapsley!!! 12 year old Shane has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta AKA brittle bone syndrome. Osteogenesis imperfecta is caused by defective genes. These genes affect how the body makes collagen, a protein that helps strengthen bones. The dozens and dozens of fractures, breaks and surgeries that Shane  continues to face DOES NOT stop him. He is extremely independent and just an overall happy kid. He was full of nothing but smiles and jokes during our shoot. Shane loves everything SPORTS. He is a Cowboys fan (WOOHOO) and a New York Knicks Fan. This kid will go places, his bright spirit assures that. Share his story, spread awareness for Osteogenesis Imperfecta and get familiar with his face!!

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Photographer | Stephanie Smith

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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!!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 hello@lensesforlove.com.

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Everyone meet Asante! Asante is a 6 year old boy, a rising 1st grader, a twin brother AND a little brother, a loving son but, most importantly, a comedian at heart! He also happens to have been born extremely premature at 26 weeks and has the most common form of dwarfism, achondroplasia.

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Despite all of his complex healthcare needs, Asante is a gift to all he encounters. He has an abundant love of life and a smile to match. He loves playing soccer, basketball and swimming. He loves to watch anything sports related. He sings on a church youth choir. He is enrolled in a French immersion program in school. Most of all, he loves to PARTY!

To manage his healthcare needs, he sees the specialists at several hospitals where  he receives weekly therapies to give him strategies for strength and daily living. Asante is a boy living his best life… with difference.

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Before meeting the boys, Asante’s Momma told me that everyone refers to the twins as the “turn up twins”. I now know how they got that name. I was laughing throughout our entire shoot. The saying that “big things come in small packages” is 100% true for Asante. This child will be on the big screens one day, but for now…. Enjoy his sweet face and infectious smile!

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Photographer | Stephanie Smith

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Meet Charlie!! Charlie, all the way in Milwaukee, MELTED MY HEART I first saw Charlies story on the Viral today show clip a few weeks back. It read “meet the mom who fosters hospice babies”. A friend of mine, Katy, suggested that maybe I reach out to the mother, who is a retired nurse….about donating a shoot to their family. Obviously, in my mind… I was thinking there would be no interest from his mom, because she was being bombarded with requests. I sent the message any ways and told her that I didn’t know when I could get to her, but IF it became possible, that I would love to donate a shoot to their family. Surprisingly, she replied and welcomed me. That same friend, Katy, set up a gofundme and within 2 weeks, I was on my way to Milwaukee to donate the shoot with a brand new IPAD for Charlie in hand.

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I did not know what to expect with meeting Charlie. He would be the first Hospice child that I have photographed so I was overwhelmed with emotions…and honestly, a week later…I still am. The family welcomed me with wide open arms and hugs. When I met Charlie, I instantly teared up. A part of me was feeling selfish for the things I complain about, part of me was feeling so happy that he found a family that loves him so much, and part of me was feeling heartbroken that I knew this was possibly the last time I would see his sweet face. Those are the hardest moments of growing close to all of these young people. The attachment. Charlie has a condition called Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy. This is a condition that occurs when the entire brain is deprived of an adequate oxygen supply, but the deprivation is not total. I want to be very clear, Charlie is NOT brain dead. The family has had a lot of backlash, insisting that they are selfish for keeping Charlie alive. This family is not selfish for keeping him alive. In fact, they are the exact opposite. They are selfless. They are showering him with love, kisses and hugs all day, every day and making his time here on earth nothing short of amazing. Charlie was not expected to live past the age of 2 but guess what, he celebrated his 2nd birthday June 25th. Medical experts can only go but so far. I am a firm believer that love can keep us alive.

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Charlies sweet chubby cheeks, curly hair, and big blue eyes stole my heart. though Charlie has never spoken a word, he has changed the lives of many. I felt an instant connection with him from the moment I touched his face. Something came over me that reassured me I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing.

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Read more about Charlie and his family here.

Photographer | Stephanie Smith

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Lenses for Love is thrilled to share the stories of so many families who receive the gift of photographs from photographers all over the nation. Take a few minutes, explore the blog and send us a message so we can get a conversation started!

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