A group of kids stands in an art exhibition packed with excited people and stunning photographs. They are chatting among themselves, admiring the work on the walls while cradling colorful books in their arms. A woman takes one of the children aside and has him stand near one of the photographs. She asks the boy to open the book. He flips to a page identical to the photograph on the wall. Where one might expect to see the artist’s portrait, there is a picture of the child’s face.
The boy, named Keondre, is in fact the artist. He is standing next to his artwork “Loading Dock Leap,” a photograph of his friend in mid-jump off an old loading dock. After the woman takes the picture, he smiles at her.
Keondre has much to be thankful for. The woman, a professional photographer named Karen Shell, has mentored him and thirty other students on the art of photography. Across weeks of exploration, Keondre and his peers learned how to channel creative expression through a camera. This is only possible because of Karen’s nonprofit, Kids in Focus, which she started to unite these programs.
Karen brings on photographers as mentors who guide the kids through the program. Each child receives a camera purchased by Karen. For eight weeks, the kids take pictures at home and on special field trips, exploring downtown Phoenix and other nearby areas with Karen and the other mentors. She doesn’t train her students to outright become photographers. Rather, her programs are “an incredible opportunity to teach them important life lessons.”
The transformation culminates in the children’s final field trip: an art exhibition starring themselves. “The purpose of that evening is to build confidence for the kids,” she notes. Well-known venues, including the Arizona Science Center, the Phoenix Children’s Museum, and even Burton Barr Library (the largest library in Arizona) host the exhibitions. Hundreds of people turn out to the event, congratulating the kids in person.
“The public sees the kids at the end of the program. They’re seeing confident kids. But what people don’t realize is what the kids were like before they joined the program. Most of them were very disconnected, having been through lots of challenges and problems in their life. And when that happens, you disconnect from the people around you, and from your environment, and ultimately from yourself.” —Karen Shell
Kids in Focus was born of Karen’s decades of volunteer service. She has been working with at-risk youth in particular, an audience that she can relate to. While she has spent many hours volunteering for charities, women’s shelters, and schools, she easily named a favorite, Vista Colina. At this homeless shelter, Karen noticed that the children’s playground was in disrepair. A few calls later, she discovered Make a Difference (now known as HandsOn Greater Phoenix), which connected her with eager volunteers around the Valley. Once the team was assembled, they began working on a new playground. Karen fondly recalled the kids’ reactions:
“When they saw the new playground and swingset…the expressions on their faces I will never forget, just pure joy. Here they are living in a shelter, facing traumas, and just a swing set gave them so much joy. That moment changed me, and I realized that was so easy. It just took having an idea and acting on it. From that moment on, I realized how easy it is to make a difference.”
Even after the kids graduate from Kids in Focus, Karen and her mentors keep in touch with them throughout their adolescent years. Thanks to Kids in Focus programs, Karen transforms her students into more assured and personable individuals. Perhaps the most important gift to her students isn’t the camera, but what it represents. The camera symbolizes a pledge to study well, work hard, and be a good person. As Karen said, “I want them to feel that they’ve earned it.”