Kids in Focus

Phoenix nonprofit helps at-risk youth see the world in a new light

When Karen Shell created Kids in Focus in 2012, she wanted to help at-risk kids see things in a new way—through the lens of a camera. That’s because Shell, a commercial photographer, believes photography is a healing form of creative expression that can change kids’ lives.

“We’re all familiar with art therapy, like painting and drawing, to help kids express themselves. But in my opinion, photography is art therapy on steroids,” she says. “Photography helps kids who’ve experienced trauma get outside of their bubble and their 2-foot headspace and into the world, exploring and connecting with people and environments they’ve disconnected with because of their circumstances.”

To inspire hope in children, specifically those aged 10 to 14, and help them gain a new field of vision, Kids in Focus partners with community organizations—such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Children First Leadership Academy—in organizing photography field trips with after-school programs throughout the Valley. Kids in Focus also works with various foster care organizations and recently partnered with the Sequoia Deaf School in Mesa.

As part of its programming, those who participate in Kids in Focus are given a small point-and-shoot digital camera, which they get to keep. Some kids really resist looking around at first because it’s scary, says Shell, but eventually they open up as they explore, snap their surroundings, and begin to view and discover things they haven’t seen before.

While Shell makes her living as a professional photographer, the goal of Kids in Focus isn’t to train them for a career in photography. Rather, the purpose is to encourage those who face hardships like poverty, homelessness, neglect and abuse to develop a set of fresh eyes on new experiences and opportunities.

“We just teach the basics of photography,” says Shell.

Yet the camera is a significant vehicle that allows at-risk kids to be transported from their harsh realities to a world of different possibilities and perspectives.

“A camera is an incredibly safe tool. Without it, the kids won’t look around,” explains Shell. “A camera allows them the freedom and safety to become aware and pay attention. And since our mentor volunteers are trained photographers, they are able to nurture the kids to overcome their blocks and help them start to see again and notice the beauty around them.”

Exposure to photography—and new environments—also provides at-risk youth the opportunity to build confidence, self-esteem and resilience. As the kids eventually find their creative footing, their self-worth rises, according to Shell.

“You see the light switches go off in their eyes,” she says.

Kids who participate in the program agree. One such participant, Zaida, explains how photography and her exposure to Kids in Focus have changed her viewpoint. “I’m not afraid anymore to try new things,” she says. “I’m more hopeful about my future.”

And for Aram, his frame of reference has also improved because of Kids in Focus. “Before, every time I would walk, I would look at the ground. Now when I walk, I look up and side to side,” he says.

The sense of accomplishment and achievement is reinforced at the annual Kids in Focus public photography exhibit. The event will be held this year at the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix and kicks off on March 29. The free exhibit is a real confidence booster to the organization and the more people that attend, the more impact there will be on the kids.

“It’s an important opportunity for the them to interact with the community and it makes a difference in their lives,” says Shell.

The organization also hosts a yearly alumni picnic for all those who have participated in Kids in Focus to reconnect. “The last thing I want to do is to make an impact and disappear,” she notes.

As someone who faced her own set of challenges as a child, it’s particularly fulfilling for Shell to witness the rehabilitative imprint photography has on at-risk youths.

“I didn’t really understand the power of photography until I saw the transformation of the kids in the program,” she says. “When you experience challenges and trauma, it can make you a bitter person. It changes you. But you have a choice to be bitter or better. It’s what drives me to continue to help kids.”


Story: Sally J. Clasen

Photos: Jill Richards, Angel (student), Jason Grubb, Mark Lipczynski

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