TAMPA — When volunteers from the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts handed digital cameras to a dozen of the children at A Kid's Place in Brandon, they sent them in search of things that make them happy.
The children at the residential facility, ages 7 to 16, went on a "photo safari" to take pictures of the playground and the welcome center. They snapped their favorite books and toys. And they took pictures of one another.
"Breanna," 14, photographed her friends' hands. Five of them held their fingers next to one another in the shape of a star.
"Like a starfish, no two of us are the same," she wrote in a description of her photo. "We all have feelings. To belong somewhere. To be loved. And maybe, like a starfish, to float in the water."
About 20 of the photos taken by the children will be on display at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts downtown. The exhibit "Through the Eyes of Foster Care" begins today with a reception. Proceeds from the reception will benefit A Kid's Place, which serves abused, neglected or abandoned children.
The photo safari was part of a larger literacy and photography outreach program the museum does with community groups that help underprivileged or at-risk youth.
"We trick them into writing. They're so excited about the pictures, they really do want to share," said Joyce Zevola, director of operations at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and one of the volunteers who went to A Kid's Place. "Sometimes when we're giving the lessons, they just really want to be out taking pictures, and it doesn't seem like they're paying attention at all, but they are. They get great photos."
"Fred," 13, captured his friend dunking a basketball on the playground.
"I just walked around and took as many pictures as I could. I didn't even really know what I took until I looked at them after I was done," he said. "I liked seeing my pictures on the laptop after we were done. I didn't even remember taking some of them, so I was surprised when they looked really good."
The volunteers bring digital cameras and laptops and teach the kids a little about photography. They give them a theme to work with, and after the kids take pictures, they choose a few and write about them.
"I liked learning new things about cameras and what they can do," said "Kyle," 9. "You can make fun things, and it's not right or wrong if it's how you like it."
"I learned that sometimes pictures are better if you don't try so hard," said "Henry," 11.
A Kid's Place opened four years ago and has served about 700 children. The facility takes in infants to 17-year-olds and has room for 60 children at a time.
One of the main goals is to keep siblings together, said executive director Virginia Johnson. Most of the children stay about three months while authorities work to place them with a relative or in a foster home where siblings can stay together.
"Our role is to simply care for the children and create a warm, loving home life environment where they can begin to heal from the trauma," Johnson said.
There are five homes on the property. Siblings stay together in the same house. They have "house parents" who stay there six days at a time to give the kids consistency. Activities like the photo safari are important because they give the children a creative outlet, said Paula Perry, executive director of Kids Charity of Tampa Bay, which helped to open A Kid's Place and supports foster children in the Tampa Bay area.
"They see so many different things — the poetry, the photography, the artistry," she said. "Yes, they have been traumatized by what has happened in their lives, but they're capable of so much."
Perry hopes to not only raise money for A Kid's Place with the exhibit, but to raise awareness of foster care in general, she said.
"These are our children that are in our community, and it's our job to take care of them," she said.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.