Photography program encourages kids to capture images of a better future

Eight-year-old Lanyshia Folk stood quietly in a garden patch and held her camera steady as she tried to capture an image of a butterfly perched inches away on a small, plum-colored flower.

Unsure of what to do, at first she pushed the power button instead of the one controlling the shutter.

“It keeps flying away!” she whispered, eyes bright, not wanting to scare the butterfly off.

She was a photographer on an assignment to shoot pictures of her dreams, and Lanyshia dreamed of painting butterflies when she grows up to be a model-doctor-artist.

She was one of about a dozen children who participated in the Pictures of Hope program Tuesday at the Mary Virginia Merrick Center in Southeast Washington. Photojournalist Linda Solomon, who founded the program in 2006 to help homeless children share their aspirations, came along to teach the kids the basics of taking well-composed, unblurred photos.


Mahare Samuel, 5, gets help from his brother, Mubarek Hassen, and photographic mentor Kevin O'Brien during a picture-taking program on Tuesday in Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The photos will be used to create holiday greeting cards, which will be sold to benefit the Tenants Empowerment Network program run by the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, where the children and their families are staying as they seek stability. The D.C. project is one of 14 that have taken place nationally, with proceeds going to fund housing programs and homeless shelters.

Solomon, who started off her mini-lesson by showing the kids photos she had taken of Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus, said that after decades of working as a photojournalist for magazines and other publications, she wanted to dedicate her time to raising awareness about family homelessness and motivating the children to think about their futures when daily living might dominate their thoughts. More than 3,500 children in the Washington region are homeless, according to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments report released in January.

“The dream I hear the most is getting a college education,” Solomon said. “I’ve seen college spelled every way but correctly, but they always want to have a college education.”

Solomon, who doesn’t have children, gives the kids she meets through her program her cellphone number and gets calls from many of them, even years later.

“I’ve seen some of these same kids grow up and actually get into college, they call me and say they have a full scholarship — it’s life-changing,” she said.

Lanyshia may have been a novice with a camera, but she had plenty of potential photo subjects, filling every line on the sheet of paper she was given to list her hopes.

“I want to be a good student, and I want to help people when they fall down,” she said, recalling a time when she was playing on the swings and fell off. It hurt a little, she said, but someone helped her. That’s why she wants to be a doctor.

“She has hopes for not just herself but she dreams that her friends can go to college too, which is so beautiful and unselfish,” said Taylor Long, 25, Lanyshia’s mentor who was paired to help her with the assignment. “How many kids can say that at that age?”

Kamia Tshibaka, 10, wore a headband with bright flowers in her hair and took a photo of a poster that read “Girl Power!” She photographed a book with abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who helped slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad. She gave her mother, Kelvonna Zanders, 29, the task of holding her camera case.

“I want to be an actor and singer and fashion designer, and I want my mom and dad to find better jobs and my grandma to feel better,” Kamia listed. “I want my mom — my whole family — to be happy.”

She asked a television reporter if she could sing into the microphone, belting out a song by Little Mix called “Wings”: “Mama told me not to waste my life, she said spread your wings my little butterfly.”

Zanders and her three children, of which Kamia is the oldest, moved nearby after the Tenants Empowerment Network helped them find permanent housing.

Though being a single mother was tough, Zanders has dreams too, hoping to one day own her own boutique using designs Kamia drew. Right now, she works from midnight to 8 a.m. as a security guard at Georgetown University.

Zanders dropped out of high school at 16 but went back to school and earned her high school diploma this summer. Kamia proudly showed off pictures of her mother wearing a graduation cap.

“It’s great to stand on my own feet,” Zanders said. “I tell my girls all the time the importance of school and college, and I took my younger daughter to see the White House because she wants to be president one day.”

When she’s at work, her kids spend time with their father or at her relatives’ houses. She keeps Kamia busy singing in the church choir, taking dance lessons and even taking her to the “America’s Got Talent” auditions. She’s happy her children can be positive and sing all the time and dream big, even during those times when Zanders said she was mainly concerned with survival.

“They say women can’t do as much, but that’s wrong. I want my children to learn to be leaders,” Zanders said.

Not far away, one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women was crouched down trying to help a 5-year-old boy who dreamed of college and becoming Superman.

Mary Barra is the chief executive of General Motors, the parent company of Chevrolet, which underwrites Pictures of Hope and donated the new cameras for the children to keep on Tuesday.

“It’s like he discovered a new window of communication,” Barra marveled. “He’s taking shots left and right. It’s a delight to see children focus on their hopes and dreams.”

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