PWP’S MENTORING PROGRAM: Women In Need
IMPRINTS |FALL/WINTER 2010
By Catherine Kirkpatrick
The numbers are staggering. Each night in New York City, 35,000 people sleep in shelters. We‘ve all seen them slumped over steam vents, scrounging in the trash for bottles and cans. But if you think you know what the average homeless person looks like, you’re probably wrong. Almost half of the homeless are children and eighty percent are families. As the economy worsens, their numbers are rising.
But one organization is making a difference – Women In Need (WIN). Founded twenty-seven years ago in a church, WIN now operates six shelters in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, caring each night for over 2,500 people, more than 1,800 of them children. But WIN is more than a shelter. By offering childcare, job training, housing assistance and counseling, it gives women the chance to change their lives. Through summer camp and high-quality learning programs, it helps homeless children thrive.
When PWP’s Community Service Committee chose WIN as its 2009-2010 organization to help with photography, it found a willing and creative partner. On April 1st, 2010, CSC members Andy Mars, Karen Smul, Sheila Smith and myself went to WIN’s East Harlem shelter to meet with the six children who would be participating: three girls, eight to twelve years old, and three boys, nine to twelve.* All were from fragile families; none had ever done photography.
According to WIN Volunteer Coordinator, Alyssa Montoya, the children “were hesitant at first,€ unsure if they would enjoy a “workshop.€
Things started slowly as Karen Smul gave a basic lesson in photography. She had everyone cut out a frame from a piece of paper and look through it as she spoke about isolating things through the lens, and becoming aware of background and movement in the frame. She took out a folding reflector for a quick lesson on light. The children were polite, but reserved. The energy level rose when Sheila Smith opened her portfolio book on dogs.
It exploded when cameras were put into their hands. The minute we stepped outside they took pictures of everything–the entrance to the shelter, iron railings along the street, shadows falling over steps, each other-nothing was off limits! Shyness disappeared. Strangers were asked to pose: a father with a newborn, a deliveryman on a bike, paparazzi staking out a film set.
The smallest girl was transfixed by a florist’s shop, and in the best tradition of street photography, she and her sister pointed their cam- eras into a parking bay, then down onto the train tracks coming out of the Park Avenue tunnel. In a gritty neighborhood, they found beauty and grace.
Though Community Service Committee members provided point-and-shoot cameras, there weren’t enough to go around. Karen Smul noticed “without any prompting from the adults, they devised a system of sharing, taking a certain number of shots before passing the camera on to the next child. No one was possessive.€ Inspired by their maturity, she handed over her own Nikon D300 to a boy who had been especially quiet in the shelter. “I thought maybe he didn’t understand… or was bored,€ but “he told me he was focusing on what to photograph. What a great experience!€
In Central Park where there were more flowers for the smallest photographer, leaping Frisbee-chasing dogs for everyone, and the “sleeping cowboy,€ a portly man in a ten-gallon hat, napping on a bench – one of the many friends, human and canine, we made along the way.
Back at the shelter, we downloaded the pictures in the computer room and reviewed everyone’s work. It was good. Not just a good start, but clear, imaginative and bold. The children had seen without preconceptions, taken chances, and found beauty and interest in unexpected places.
The PWP mentoring effort was more than a few hours of fun. In an age when many jobs require knowledge of digital imaging, it gave these imaginative young people a solid introduction and foundation on which they can build.
There was also bliss. Though we never left the neighborhood, the ground covered that day was enormous. The children saw the world through new eyes, and through them, we did too.
* WIN asked that their names not be used