As you flip through your holiday cards this season and glance at the smiling faces, there is a chance you are looking at photos that helped to curb hunger or granted a wish to a child with cancer.

This October, a cabal of photographers, primarily from the Twin Cities, did a slew of photo sessions and donated the proceeds — $20,000 — to two charitable organizations.

The photographer nonprofit, One Month to Give, is the brainchild of 19-year-old Perry Smith, a former Lake­ville North student and now a full-time photographer.

Smith, whose cancer was diagnosed when he was 15, said that experience “really redirected the focus of how I was living life.”

“When everything is on the chopping block, when you don’t know if you’re going to make it to the next day,” he said, it tends to put things in perspective.

After that experience, Smith embraced his passion for photography. He bought and sold cameras on Craigslist and built up a good set of gear, he took senior portraits for his classmates, and he eventually mentored under some area photographers to build his skills.

He also, he said, became committed to living a “purpose-filled life that gives back and helps people.”

Growing momentum

Three years ago, a challenge from his youth group to raise money for a charitable cause made him deliberate as to how he could use his existing skills to make a difference.

“I didn’t necessarily want to do a bake sale,” he said.

The first two years, on his own, Smith donated photo sessions during the month of October. He donated the funds to his aunt, who was battling cancer, and to a missionary organization. During the second year, he also volunteered his photo sessions and during that October, he donated over 40 family sessions and single-handedly raised $10,000.

“Which I don’t recommend ever doing for your sanity and your health,” said Smith. “I kind of led a little more than I needed to.”

However, his efforts gained the attention of other Twin Cities photographers, and this past year, five others stepped up to form the organization’s volunteer board, and more than 50 photographers committed themselves to taking part in the project.

Twin Cities photographer Lucas Botz, who mentored Smith as a wedding photographer, became a board member and donated sessions.

“It was great,” said Botz, who donated the profits from nine photo sessions. “It’s really great when you know that other people are doing it. It gives you some accountability.”

Botz said that the initiative also seemed to spur on a number of clients who were undecided about getting holiday photos taken. “A lot of my clients,” he said, “they want to give back.” If they could write it off on their taxes and get photos, he said, it was a “win-win” for them.

Botz said that Smith’s personality has contributed to the quick success of the nonprofit. “He’s so good with people,” he said, “He’s so personable. He’s really genuine. When he’s worked with me, my clients are like ‘He’s so amazing.’ A reason other photographers are willing to get behind his ideas is that he’s so gracious and uplifting.”

Botz also said that Smith has really been “the workhorse” behind One Month to Give.

“He’s so mature,” he said. “He’s 19, and he’s doing things that most 30- and 40-year-olds haven’t even thought of doing.”

“Perry’s awesome,” said board member and photographer Russell Heeter, 25, of Minnetonka. “He’s very energetic. He just has the biggest heart ever. He’s just a ball of energy.”

Heeter donated two engagement sessions, three family sessions and part of a wedding session. “When you mention it to clients,” he said, “they hop on board right away.”

Realizing what’s important

Most photographers donate the proceeds from one session in October, said Smith, but some did more. Overall, the group donated 75 sessions.

Kate Becker, a photographer from the north metro community of Ramsey, said she spent a day at Theodore Wirth Park doing “mini-sessions” with seven families for their holiday photos.

“I had so much fun with it,” she said, adding that she liked feeling that “we are part of a community that’s bigger than ourselves.”

As they develop their nonprofit, said board members, they want to make it as easy as possible for photographers to donate a session. Also, photographers from nine states contributed this year, but they hope to make the organization even more of a national presence in future years.

“We’re a young group of people,” said Laura Rae, 25, a photographer and board member. “We were all very new to this nonprofit idea. Around every corner was something unexpected.”

Profits from the October donations went to Feed My Starving Children and helped them to pack over 40,000 meals for malnourished children. Profits also benefited Wishes & More, an organization that benefits children with terminal or life-threatening conditions. Joelle Nelson, senior director of communications and development at Wishes & More, said they put the photographers’ donation toward one wish, two scholarships and two memorials.

Nelson was impressed to see in Smith “a young person do that kind of giving, to see the world beyond what’s in front of them. The enthusiasm he has, I just know it’s going to continue. I know he’s going to do really great things.”

Perry’s mother, Amy Smith, of Lakeville, attended the celebration where One Month to Give presented the checks to the organizations. “It was a tearjerker,” she said. “It was so cool. It’s nice to see when things come full circle like that.”

The two organizations are near and dear to Perry Smith. He said he’s seen the work that Feed My Starving Children does when visiting Haiti, and he’s understood how important it was to have to support when he was going through cancer treatments.

Perry said that that his early experience with cancer helped him realize what’s important in life. “When I went through that, I realized there are a lot of things in life that are temporary,” he said. “Popularity, money, fame, those things …are appealing, but they have their baggage.”

“Family is important,” he said. “Loving on people is important. Giving back is important.

“We’re here on Earth as people to make a difference,” he said. “We’re all people, and we can help people.”

 

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer and photographer. She can be reached at liz.rolfsmeier@gmail.com.