A 2nd Act: A Picture’s Worth
When you open the photo album depicting Karen Shell’s life to date, you see images that tell a story of tenacity, drive and resilience. The photos do not emphasize her more than three decades as a successful, award-winning freelance commercial photographer. Instead, they shine light on her support of others and how this mainstay in her life began when she was a child.
“I experienced a challenging and abusive childhood, and it gave me the desire and drive at a young age to want to help others,” Shell said. “So even while I was still living through some of it, I was actively seeking that out.”
Shell’s work with those in need began when she spent a few hours on a Saturday with kids at the Vista Colina Family Shelter. When it was time for her to go, the kids wrapped their arms around her legs to prevent her from leaving. The touching experience left Shell wanting to do more, despite being “broker than broke” because she had not yet begun building her photography business. Still, she successfully harnessed her idea to provide a new swing set for the kids, realizing how easy it was to make a difference. “I just had to have an idea and act on it,” Shell said. “From that moment on, I was in hot pursuit and started creating my own stuff.”
A self-described “born entrepreneur,” Shell spent two decades working on community projects ranging from shoe drives to reading programs, including coordinating an annual Picture Day for a thousand children experiencing homelessness at Children First Leadership Academy (formerly Thomas J. Pappas Schools for homeless children) so they could have free portraits.
Her deep connection as a mentor for five years with a group of 17 kids at the Leadership Academy sharpened her focus. Hoping to build the kids’ confidence, Shell arranged for photographers to teach them photography and exhibit their work at Burton Barr Central Library. She didn’t expect to see the profound changes in these kids she had come to know so well. “I thought, this is it! I had finally found the way to make a life-changing difference in these kids’ lives,” Shell said. “They were more open, connected, vibrant, confident and calm. And I thought, I really need to build this.”
Build she did. Shell established the nonprofit Kids in Focus in 2012. Kids in Focus empowers youth, ages 10 to 18, who come from backgrounds of poverty, homelessness, neglect or abuse to reframe the world around them, becoming more aware and connected. The nonprofit is dedicated to mentoring youth to overcome adversity and build resilience through the art of photography.
Youth from partner organizations throughout the Valley participate in the no-cost programs. A camera, mentor, field trips, self-celebration and continuum of care are embedded in every program. “Using the camera as a tool is incredibly effective because it’s like a safety net,” Shell said. “You pair kids with a mentor who’s trained to see and notice, take them on field trips to remove them from their daily stressful environment, and the magic starts to happen.”
After eight years of working 18-hour days, seven days a week, between her photography business and Kids in Focus, Shell could no longer do both and made what she felt was the clear choice. “There was no hesitation,” she said. “I’m going to give up my career because my heart is with the kids.”
Just as a camera’s fast shutter speed captures quick-moving action, Kids in Focus has grown from only Shell and volunteer mentors to include staff and an expanded board of directors now supporting 700 kids a year. “I’m really proud of the profoundly life-changing programs I innately created because of my own experience, and that I grew the organization from nothing to where it is today,” she said.
As you turn to the next page in Shell’s photo album, you will see it is not yet filled with images. That is because another act is on the horizon as Shell recently transitioned from her role as Kids in Focus executive director after more than a decade. She will undoubtedly continue her lifelong pursuit and intense focus on giving back.
“When you go through really hard stuff, it’s going to change you, but you get to choose how,” Shell said. “You have two choices — bitter or better. I wanted to be better because of it. It’s always been clear to me there’s nothing more healing and rewarding than when you give to others.”