Homeless youth spend a day taking ‘Pictures of Hope’

Annie Schlesinger, project designer at Skinnytees, helps a ‘Pictures of Hope’ student snap some photographs at the Tucson Museum of Art on Saturday, Oct. 1. (David J. Del Grande/AJP)

Fourteen children enrolled in Our Family Services, a local program that provides support for homeless families and youth, pack a small conference room on a crisp Saturday morning, listing their future goals, decorating coloring sheets and snacking on cheese sticks.

Linda Solomon, a Tucson native and founder of Pictures of Hope, starts the day with a slideshow of her celebrity photographs and professional tips.

The children have no trouble identifying Beyonce, and they erupt with cheers when a picture of actor Will Smith followed. But how did Solomon get her dog to smile for a photograph, she asks the lively group. She used the age-old industry secret: doggie biscuits.

Solomon teaches the children some photography basics: emphasize your subject, make sure it’s in focus and, if you can, get about “a giant step away,” she says. The lesson includes some quizzes and the kids call out their answers, shouting louder as the morning unfolds.

After the crash course, the young shutterbugs are surprised with a free digital camera, which brings everyone to their feet.

“The most important thing is to show children that their hopes and dreams matter,” says Solomon. “The kids walk away feeling special, they feel important and they feel people care. And whenever they’re having a bad day they’ll always remember the good one they had with us.”

Pictures of Hope is a nationwide nonprofit fundraising project that works with children facing homelessness. Since 2005, the annual workshop has visited 50 cities throughout the United States and continues to make Tucson a mainstay stop.

“My goal is to touch the heart of a child, and through photography the children share feelings that they don’t easily share verbally,” says Solomon.

At the beginning of the workshop, the children write a list of their dreams, and then along with their mentors they photograph one of their future goals. The various local mentors this year included Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Dr. H.T. Sanchez and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

“My thanks go out to Linda for continuing her support for this program in Tucson,” says Rothschild. “Each year, we reach more children in a personal way that changes their life direction. The program works and our community appreciates it.”

The workshop will visit six cities this year, and Solomon is looking to increase their outreach in the future because of the impact it has on the children who participate.

“With the numbers of homeless children only getting larger in population, it’s too important not to bring the program back to all cities that have had the program and to new cities,” she says.

Leilani Martinez, 15, who has been involved with the Pictures of Hope program for six years, was one of the many mentors at this year’s event and was recently awarded the Hope Scholarship to Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill. Martinez is one of four children who received a full ride scholarship this year, and Solomon says she’s honored to provide such a wonderful opportunity.

“It’s meant everything to me,” Solomon says.

This was the first year the program partnered with Skinnytees, a clothing company founded by Linda Schlesinger-Wagner, a nationally recognized fashion designer. Without this support, Pictures of Hope would have been hard pressed to return to Tucson, Solomon says.

“Every year we select Tucson as a city, and every year I’m very honored to bring it back,” she says. “And thanks to Linda, I was able to do that.”

The children’s photos will be printed on holiday note cards, and will be unveiled at a “Meet the Young Artist” opening event hosted by Children’s Museum Tucson, 200 S. Sixth Ave., on Monday, Nov. 14 from 4-6 p.m. All proceeds will fund programs at Our Family Services. For more information visit lindasolomonphotography.com or ourfamilyservices.org.