Even after she returned from South Africa, Betsey Chesler couldn’t stop thinking about the children.
Chesler, a fine art photographer, visited five orphanages in the country in 2008. When she returned to the United States, she realized that displaying her work in galleries wasn’t fulfilling enough.
“Am I here on this earth to exhibit my work in galleries? Is that important enough to me?” she recalled thinking. “No, it’s not.”
So she channeled her photography skills into something else.
A year later, she started the Cameras for Kids Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching children how to express themselves through photography. Since its conception at the SOS Children’s Villages in Coconut Creek, the program has expanded to 24 locations across the United States and Canada.
During classes, children learn basic photography concepts, such as photo composition, lighting and shooting with lines and shapes. The kids, in elementary through high school, then use cameras provided by the foundation to apply the skills.
“The bare minimum from the program is that they find beauty wherever they are in life when they move forward,” Chesler, 51, said.
Chesler recalled one student who took away that lesson after taking the class. The student called Chesler to tell her she was walking to the bus stop — the same bus stop she’d been walking to for years — and, for the first time, noticed a fire hydrant near the stop. The sun was rising and caught the hydrant in a way that made it glow. She snapped a photo and emailed it to Chesler.
“It was outstanding,” Chesler said. “It was a piece of fine art photography.”
At the end of the eight-week session, the children get to present their work as fine art photographers would — at a gallery — and have the opportunity to talk to visitors about their photos.
For some children, moving forward after the class means going toward goals they never thought they’d have, she said. Many of the kids decide they want to go to college to pursue something photography-related, such as photojournalism or graphic design.
Since founding the organization, Chesler has taken more of an administrative role, expanding to different cities and planning fundraisers. The classes are mainly taught by professional photographers.
One of them is Kara Starzyk, a freelance photographer based in South Florida. Starzyk was assigned to take photos of Chesler and the students on a field trip to Zoo Miami when Chesler first started the foundation.
“When I walked away ... I was like ‘I could be a part of this organization,’” she said. “It’s a skill I have that I can contribute and give back.”
She approached Chesler about getting involved and soon began teaching classes at SOS on Saturdays.
One day at the end of October, Starzyk’s nine students met for class. Starzyk was out of town, but her co-teacher, Jennifer Tormo, took over.
During the class, Tormo, managing editor at Gulfstream Media Group, went over photography concepts like composition, framing and depth of field. Each child then received a digital camera and went outside to demonstrate that they understood the lesson.
Among them was Skyler, 16, who spent the afternoon photographing while crouching, ducking and crawling on the neighborhood’s cul-de-sac.
“I’ve always loved taking pictures because instead of just looking at something and forgetting it, I can take a picture and treasure it all my life,” said Skyler, who plans to become a physical therapist or technician in the military.
For now, Skyler uses photography as a way to control his feelings.
“Photography has really changed my life because I used to be this angry upset boy, but since I’ve been taking it, I’ve been calming down,” said Skyler, who’s been at the foster home for about three years.
“It’s been teaching me how to respond to people and not get angry because you have to calm down and think about the picture.”
In Miami-Dade, another organization uses photography to help local foster children.
The Miami Heart Gallery, part of a national network of similar galleries, brings in professional photographers to take portraits of foster children and display them on their website, along with biographies about the backgrounds and personalities of the kids.
“It takes the notion that a picture paints a thousand words,” said Emily Cardenas, senior communications manager for The Children’s Trust, a revenue source dedicated to improving the lives of Miami-Dade children and families that funds and administers the Heart Gallery.
Cardenas said there are 1,500 children in Florida living in foster care homes who are eligible for adoption, and 150 of them live in Miami-Dade. So far, about half the children who’ve appeared in the gallery over the past five years have been adopted or are in the process of being adopted.
The gallery partners with organizations around the community, such as Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Coconut Grove and the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, for photo shoot locations. The shoots are moving for the photographers and volunteers involved because the children open up about their lives, Cardenas said.
“During the interviews, what you normally hear is kids who say ... ‘I just want to be loved. I just want to be with people who will understand me,’” she said. “That has a lot of impact.”
The next shoot will be this Tuesday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, where photographers will photograph more than 20 kids, Cardenas said.
As for Cameras for Kids, Chesler said she plans to hold her annual Shooting for the Stars fundraiser early next year, where photographs captured by the children are featured in a silent auction. She hopes to soon raise enough money to purchase cameras for students involved in the program so they can stick with the craft.
“A lot of these kids have a tough road ahead of them,” she said. “No matter where they’re living or what the standards are, they’ll find beauty. It’ll bring them happiness and some peace.”
Cameras for Kids Foundation:
Visit camerasforkidsfoundation.org, call 954-354-5080 or email Betsey Chesler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miami Heart Gallery:
Visit miamiheartgallery.org, call 855-786-KIDS or email Glorivee Miranda at email@example.com.