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Local Nonprofit Harnesses the Healing Power of Photographer to Help Kids

“Beautiful Life” by Alexis, age 13

Kids in Focus is helping homeless and disadvantaged youths in metro Phoenix, one photograph at a time.

Karen Shell knows what it feels like to be a kid facing adult-level challenges. Despite being raised in an unsafe home, she was one of the more fortunate ones—at least she had a place to live. One hundred percent of the young people who participate in Kids in Focus, the nonprofit program Shell founded in 2012, live at or below poverty level, and the majority are homeless. Shell’s organization may not change their living arrangements, but it is having a positive impact on thousands of children in need.

Thirty years as a freelance commercial photographer taught Shell that a shift in perspective can change everything. “I grew up in an abusive home, and since then, it has been my lifelong pursuit to use the therapeutic power of expressive art to give back to those in need,” she explains. Kids in Focus empowers at-risk youth, ages 10-18, through the restorative freedom of photography. Volunteer mentors work with the children, who are each given the opportunity to channel their emotions by literally viewing life through a new lens. 

Founder and executive director of Kids in Focus, Karen Shell, appreciates the photos taken by 13-year-old Denise on the bus-ride home from a field trip.
“Time Travel,” taken at Arizona Science Center

Studies show that individuals who grow up with trauma frequently learn to disengage as a coping mechanism, and as their emotional growth becomes stunted, so does their sense of hope. But, when given a shooting implement and the structured freedom to explore, those who have learned to survive by not making eye contact begin to lift their eyes and experience their environment through the safety of the camera.

“It is an effective tool to help these kids reconnect,” explains Shell. “When you pair them with a mentor and a field trip to a local park to take photos, they begin to really see the world for the first time.”

Each child in the Kids In Focus program receives basic photography lessons, but the main objective is to create a safe space for them to use their imaginations freely. “It helped relieve a lot of my stress,” says Josh, age 11. “I can be myself. I get to see a world that I never thought of, and it is beautiful.”

Keith Pitts, a KIF mentor for 8 years, shows 11-year-old Edgar how to see things with a new perspective while they explore together on a field trip. Photo by Karen Shell
13-year-old Kamirah proudly displays her book and exhibit photos at an Exhibit Opening celebration, where her creative sparks were turned to flame. Photo by Anna Rochelle Bader

Kids in Focus started with a partner that provided financial support and resources for a single program per year serving a total of 17 kids. Today, 12 organizations are actively involved, serving 500 children per year. Seventy-five mentors currently volunteer their time, including Chris Henderson of Scottsdale, who has been involved since 2018. “I have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly relationships are formed and the difference we can make in a short amount of time,” he says.

Due to their success, Kids in Focus can now recruit mentors like Henderson. Growth has opened more doors, including a daily, nine-week afterschool program at the Children First Academy, a school for homeless and disadvantaged students, in addition to summer camps, workshops and alumni events. “When you see the kids at these gatherings and they’re so excited to see you, you know you’ve made an impact,” reflects Henderson.

“Framed”by David, age 12, taken at ASU Art Museum
“It’s a Confetti Party” by Mareli, age 11, taken on Mill Avenue in Tempe

The afterschool sessions conclude with an annual exhibit opening—a free public event held to enable the students to showcase their photos (this year’s will take place April 7, from 5:30-7:30 p.m., at the Outdoor Pavilion at Park Central Mall). The opening allows the youths to experience a sense of accomplishment. “I saw a boy smile for the first time ever,” Shell recalls. “He was homeless and the oldest son of parents who were battling alcoholism and drug addiction. The event made this young man see his potential through the eyes of others. That same boy recently graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. I cannot express how life-changing it has been for these kids.”

Shell also encourages the community support by participating in their annual fundraiser. “The more funds we have, the more kids we can reach,” Shell explains. “The great thing is it literally costs nothing to make a donation.” Kids in Focus is a qualified charitable establishment under the Arizona Charitable Tax Credit. Donors receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit against taxes owed on amounts up to $400 individually and $800 jointly.

“Cactus Nation” by Clyde, age 12, shot in downtown Phoenix
“Frozen Moment” byJasmine, age 13, taken at Tempe Center for the Arts

“I’m not afraid anymore to try new things,” says 12-year-old Zaida of her participation in the program. “I’m more hopeful about my future. I want to go out and experience things now. I learned to open my eyes.” The synergy between the students and mentors is clear. “The kids have an adventurous side and they’re more willing to take risks,” Henderson says. “I’ve learned a lot from them.”

For more information, see Sources.

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