Cameras and smiles were flashing at a Cedar Rapids church Saturday as more than a thousand people filed in to get their photos taken.
Parents and assistants were snapping, clapping, waving squeaky toys and stuffed animals, and talking about farts—anything to get stubborn kids to crack a smile.
Valerie Jedlicka’s family was trying to wrangle two toddlers in matching red and black plaid. After her family’s photo session in a church classroom-turned-portrait studio, Jedlicka says she’s thankful for the opportunity to create happy memories.
"The funds just aren’t there to get family pictures, and it’s been great that they can help us out," she says.
Holiday cards with family photos are common this time of year, but they’re not always an option for people who are struggling to make ends meet. The Greater Cedar Rapids Area Help-Portrait event is trying to change that by partnering with nonprofits and taking family portraits for people in need.
Jedlicka was among more than a thousand individuals getting their photo taken for free in the local Help-Portrait’s biggest event yet.
Amy Mueggenberg started the Cedar Rapids group five years ago and coordinates all the volunteers.
"My favorite part is working all year round on it and then getting here and just giving it to the volunteers and just watching the magic happen," she says.
Mueggenberg watches as volunteers photograph people from all walks of life—a six-day-old baby, women wearing traditional Guatemalan dresses, huge families, and individuals who want an updated photo to share with loved ones.
"It’s a lot of smiles, it’s a lot of happiness, it’s a lot of families just being together and coming together," Mueggenberg says.
Eric Jones brought four kids and his wife for their first-ever family portrait.
"It was a very nice experience," Jones says. "They got a lot of families together, a lot of nice looking families. This means a lot, to see the smiles around the Christmas season."
Jones says the event got him into the holiday spirit, and he’s planning to share the photos with family and friends.
"We got some nice photos that we can send out through the holidays," Jones says. "Finally, we can make some post cards and stuff like that with our photos."
This year, the Help-Portrait group also offered photo sessions to people in nursing homes and high school seniors.
Jose Guadalupe Juarez Estrada is a senior at John F. Kennedy High School. He says he wants a good photo to mark his last year of high school.
"I’m very excited. I brought a whole bunch of clothes to change out with, I brought some props. I think I feel blessed because I don’t have to pay for anything, they just get to help me out and take my senior photos," he says. "They’re pretty important to me."
Thirty-four professional photographers were there, working for free, at a busy time of year when they’re usually competing for business.
Volunteer photographer Astrid Gale pauses between photoshoots to say she’s also thankful for the event. She and her husband Tim come back each year to shoot portraits.
"Just seeing the smiles and the excitement and joy—for them it’s a huge blessing and privilege to be here and having their photos taken—it’s beautiful to see their excitement," Gale says.
After a full, chaotic day of photoshoots, volunteers edit the photos, make some prints, and prepare to hand out professional portraits this Saturday to the families who have been waiting all week to see them.