SPRING HILL — Elizabeth Sanders couldn't give her husband the Christmas gift she would have liked to have given him — the experience of seeing his newborn daughter in person and holding her.
Army Sgt. Benjamin Sanders is serving in Iraq and won't be home until sometime next year.
So Sanders did what she hoped would bring her husband at least some holiday cheer.
Saturday she bundled their 10-day-old daughter, Sophia, into a pink nightgown and blanket and headed to First Baptist Church of Weeki Wachee Acres, where photographer J.R. Hutchinson and four other volunteer photographers spent the day taking free 8-by-10 portraits of anyone who showed up wanting one.
For Sanders, it was a godsend that came at just the right time.
"Being away at Christmas, especially this year, is real rough for my husband," she said. "This will be his first real chance to see his daughter's face. I know he's going to love it."
The photo shoot was part of an international movement called Help-Portrait (help-portrait.com) and was organized by Bill Pierson, co-host of the weekly Military Appreciation Show on WWJB-AM 1450, and Hutchinson, who is a lieutenant in the Hernando County Sheriff's Office's major case crime unit.
Both are amateur photographers who said they simply wanted to give something back to the community during the holidays.
"We're both big-time photo enthusiasts and thought it would be a fun, positive thing to do for people who may not be able to hire a professional photographer," Pierson said. "It was a great experience for me."
Pierson and Hutchinson began planning the event weeks ago. It was modeled after the one founded last year by celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart in which photographers around the world gathered to donate their services to people in need.
They ran newspaper announcements and spread the word through their contacts with several area veterans organizations.
Before long, they had more than two dozen subjects signed up for the daylong shoot.
The photography team also included professional photographers Will Vragovic of the Hernando Times and Chris Fiffie of Instant Images in Pasco County, as well as amateur photographer William Tillis.
Shortly after sunrise Saturday, they began setting up cameras, lights and backdrops, as well as photo printing equipment that would be used to make free prints for their subjects.
Many who came to the shoot said they had never sat for a formal portrait before.
"It's my first time with my son," said Isha McCarty of Brooksville, who posed with her 8-year-old son, Zayne Loftin, her mom, Kay Beard, and the family dog, Bella.
Their portrait was to be sent to Beard's husband, Richard, who is serving in Afghanistan.
"He's going to be so surprised," Beard said as she struggled to hold Bella still for the picture. "I hope it makes it to him by Christmas."
Pierson said that will certainly happen, courtesy of Bob Williams of Wesley Chapel, who operates Support The Troops Inc. Williams, who puts together care packages for soldiers serving overseas, offered to help get all of the photos taken of military families to their appropriate destinations in time for the holidays.
Pierson, a former Marine himself, said he's eager to organize another, perhaps even larger Help-Portrait day again next December.
"Judging from the turnout we had, I'd say it's going to become more and more popular," Pierson said. "We all enjoyed being part of it."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]