SPEAK UP

"Give what you want, take what you need" is what the sign outside of Charlotte's Free Store reads. I recently found myself standing in front of the same colorful walls that have inspired me so many times before, but with totally new and different insights. 

At the corner of Davidson and 15th St begins a block known to some as Optimist Park. If you frequent Davidson St then you might know this corner as the one with all the happily painted walls depicting the home of the bicycle recyclery. Just beyond the recyclery's fence lies a small business incubator called Area 15. The walls of this 23,000 square foot building are bursting with inspiration from evolving artists and entrepreneurs -- literally -- it is a challenge to find exterior walls that haven't been turned into an expression of a tenants' art. Some of those tenants are musicians, designers, writers…and just plain enthusiasts. Area 15 hosts a 24/7 Urban Prayer Room where spiritually hungry pedestrians are invited to begin a friendship with God and engage with fellow-Christians in the war for social justice. A little further down 15th street is the cornerstone of Area 15. An old house that has been clothed in teal paint and trimmed with orange and white accents. The sign out front simply says Free Store.

Optimist Park is a concrete jungle covered in color and creativity. Its' walls promote hope and love. It is truly an artists' haven…particularly this artist. 

Myself, and many other local photographers have stood in front of these inspirational walls creating memories for engaged couples and happy families. But a few weeks ago I was on an assignment to go inside of these walls. And what I found was more than a word or two can describe.

I was recently introduced to Matt and Lana Shaw, the incredible couple behind Speak Up magazine. Haven't heard of it? That's because the first edition is about to published next month! Speak Up will be distributed exclusively by homeless vendors -- providing them with a job and a purpose. The mission behind the magazine is to "educate the public about homelessness, disparity and ways to help." Speak Up is entirely non-profit and the recipe for making the magazine looks something like this: blood, sweat, and tears and then repeat until you can't anymore. Lending my photography services to this cause was not even a question.

This new found partnership is what brought me to The Free Store to document all the love that is being shared on one little corner. Want to know more about it? Head downtown next month to buy a copy of Speak Up!

My adventures with Speak Up have also recently taken me to a pitch black alley behind a closed grocery store to meet a fearless dumpster-diving college student who has small pockets but a huge heart for feeding the homeless. The story will be in the magazine!

Speak Up has the power to change the streets of Charlotte. The lives of homeless people will be redeemed as they obtain job skills and learn to sell magazines on the streets that currently represent hopelessness to them. My prayer is that those streets will one day come to symbolize confidence and ambition. 

You may remember that I had the opportunity to teach photography to homeless kids this summer with the help of Silent Images and a Child's Place. I couldn't help but think of those kids as I made connections with Speak Up. Maybe selling magazines in Uptown Charlotte is the way out for some of these families...and that, to me, makes it all worth it. Here are a few images from the final days of photography class. Most of these were taken while on our field trip to NODA where the students practiced their new skills.

Speak Up has printed the very first issue of the magazine (woohoo!) but their goal is to print 9,999 more copies for the initial print run. The printing costs and overhead total to $8,000. They are half way there. They need to raise $4,000 by August 31st. If you have a desire to make this thing happen head over to the Speak Up website and donate whatever you can!

If you made it this far...thanks for sticking with me. More Speak Up adventures to come...no doubt.

SUMMER CAMP PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS

The first week in July brought a new routine into my life. I typically spend Mondays catching up on emails and loading pictures from weekend weddings and pretending I am organized. Those activities are followed by a personal transformation into an editing machine; and then usually by the time Wednesday rolls around I have something that I can't wait to show the world…so I post it.

The past few Mondays the number of things on my to-do list hasn't decreased very much..though the number of worries and petty troubles on my mind have consistently waned. I have had the incredible privilege of teaming up with A Child's Place and Silent Images to teach photography to about 60 homeless youth in Charlotte. I posted a while back about my astonishment when I stumbled upon Silent Images after spending hours researching grants in an attempt to offer a photography class to homeless kids in Charlotte. Silent Images was already on it! They have been able to teach the art of photography (and maybe a few life lessons along the way) for the past few summers through A Child's Place camp programs. I immediately signed up to volunteer this summer, and seriously should've had a paper chain counting down the days until it began! I couldn't wait for it to get here. 

I have this whopping hole deep in my heart that is swallowed up by the problem of homelessness. I was made with it in me. I've had it since day one. I grew up living in Connecticut and when my family took day trips to Manhattan my parents would have to give me a ration of quarters to drop in homeless peoples' cups. It destroyed me that people had to sleep on the streets and that no one was waiting for them at home.

The only thing that breaks my heart more than homeless adults is homeless children. A Child's Place recently did a study identifying 4,453 homeless children enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. The arrival of summer generally invites instability into the lives of homeless children -- beginning with the loss of the one daily meal that they could count on. This summer, one hundred of these kids have the opportunity to continue learning in a reliable environment at My Place Camp -- and this pile of broken-hearted mush has the privilege of getting to know a few of them.

I asked the question, "Who thinks they are an artist?" during photography class yesterday. Every kid in the class raised their hand. We could use a little more of that mentality in our adult lives, eh? I went on to talk about how painters are artists, and jewelry-makers are artists, and people who sketch are artists. I kept the monologue rolling, thinking all the kids were on this journey with me and I was going to lead them right where I wanted them…to the understanding that photographers are artists too. So I asked them, "Who else do you think is an artist?" A little girl raised her hand and answered inquisitively, "God?" 

She's right. God paints beauty all over this world. And we get to photograph it. Here is a little display of God's best piece yet...these beautiful little children:

Due to the sensitivity of their situations, their beautiful faces must remain anonymous but there is something touching about their sweet hands learning the art of photography.

Thank you a million to A Child's Place for providing this safe haven for homeless kids! If you haven't had the chance to check out A Child's Place, please do. They are wonderful and they always need volunteers! In addition...I can't say enough about the integrity, compassion, and hard work that flows out of David and the Silent Images team. There is a beautiful piece on the Silent Images blog right now by a friend and colleague, Elizabeth Marx. Read it!

SILENT IMAGES

Since the time that I started doing photography as my full time job, I've had a little spot in the back of my brain going a million miles an hour trying to think of a way to use photography to bless people. I've thought of seeking out some ministries that serve people who are in need and just asking if they had any photography needs but the thing I really wanted to do was teach a photography class to homeless/needy teenagers. I love hanging out with teenagers...they just bring me to life...and I think there is something wonderful about the art of photography that has the ability to bring ANYONE to life. I quickly determined that though this sounded like an incredible idea there would be no way for me personally to fund the project...mostly because you need cameras to teach photography :) But for some reason this became one of those thoughts that just wouldn't leave my brain so one morning a few weeks ago I started looking around on the great world wide web in an attempt to see if anyone had ever done this kind of thing...and how. It wasn't long before one blog lead to the next and I ended up on the website of a non-profit organization that happens to be in Charlotte and teaches photography classes to homeless teenagers! What?! Only from God. I contacted Silent Images and in all of their wonderfulness they were happy to have another volunteer photographer! Since then I've learned that Silent Images does a lot more than teach photography classes to needy kids. They travel all over the world trying to give a voice to the voiceless through pictures. David Johnson started the ministry with a mission to be an organization that seeks to tell the stories of hope in the midst of persecution, poverty, or oppression through journalistic photography, videography, and writing. And that is exactly what they do all over the world...in an effort to fight against human trafficking, aid in natural disasters, bring clean water to those who don't have it. S.I. also serves locally by gathering photographer's to shoot at events for non-profit organizations. I had the opportunity to join the team for Charlotte's Pregnancy Resource Center's Walk for Life a few weekends ago. The event was celebrating mothers who chose life and I got to meet some of the wonderful little lives that happened because of that choice. It was an honor to photograph them. 

I feel so blessed to have found a ministry like this to be involved in...I have a feeling you might see a lot more posts like this in the future!