I was first introduced to Beauty Revived in the Fall of 2014. My daughter was a Senior in high school and we had just returned home to Virginia after a very challenging 5 years out of state. We had no idea what would be ahead when we left the area in 2009. We moved to the Midwest to be closer to family so that we could support my newly widowed mother from an easier distance. Our hearts were in the right place. Somehow, though, we didn’t see it. We didn’t see through the fog of friendly greetings as we met so many members of the church. We only saw the smiling faces. We heard so many “Welcome” greetings. I know there were some who were genuine, and I know that the entire congregation wasn’t “cruel”. But we soon learned that “grace and love” weren’t really a part of the equation. We thought we were in a loving, good place for our family. But the part that the fog hid from us came out of the shadows gradually at first, then more frequently as the months turned to years. What we didn’t realize in the beginning was that we were in a place that shunned. It wasn’t the stereotypical Amish shunning, but there were so many unwritten “extreme fundamentalist” rules. Those who didn’t follow the rules were ignored/shunned, belittled, and harshly criticized. Adults would warn their children to “stay away from the public schooled kids”. Before I continue, I must say that we are not anti-homeschool. In fact, we have several friends who have or are currently homeschooling their kids. We also chose to homeschool our daughter for most of high school (and our younger two kids for a year) because of the constant bullying at school. There are a lot of positive things about it if executed well. It is a choice that parents should have a right to make for their kids because of their own personal circumstance. It doesn’t make you a better parent if you choose to homeschool or if you choose to send your kids to public school. None of us are perfect, and parenting is hard enough without the judgemental criticism of others for an education choice.
What we imagined would be a closer move to family that included serving in worship ministry at a church (my husband was hired as the worship minister) turned into a disaster. Our oldest daughter who was in 7th grade at the time began being bullied brutally at school. She was called names at first, which isn’t uncommon in the middle school years. Of course it was hard for her. We encouraged her to respond with kindness, but to speak up and stand up for herself. It got worse, however, and became physical as well. When we spoke to administrators about our concern regarding how our daughter’s head was nearly slammed into a locker (thank the Lord a teacher stepped in to stop it from hitting her head), they made excuses for the boy involved. “He’s just quirky,” we were told. When she was punched on the bus and pulled hard by her wrist (two different boys), the administration spoke to the offending students, but also made excuses. Again, it got worse because of retaliation from the bullies. One school official told one of the bullies who made a complaint against him and asked him to write her a letter of apology which triggered more verbal attacks toward her. As she would get off of the school bus to come home, several of the offending students would throw trash at her. It was awful.
Meanwhile, at a church that we originally believed would show concern for our kids, life began to unravel month by month for our daughter as well as for our other two children. It was worse for her mostly because she was a teenager who spoke her mind and said what she thought. She was a teenager. Teenagers are going to make mistakes and that is just part of the deal. And, even she would tell you that she was one of those kids who, when told “don’t do ____”, she would jump over the boundary we set. Invariably, she would learn from her mistake, apologize to us, and we’d move on. Quite a few parents of some of the students, though, warned their kids to stay away from our daughter. She was called horrible names by several students and adults because she was a normal girl who was interested in boys (she was 15 at this point). Legalism was a revered way of life there. Although there were bright spots sprinkled in over the five years with some loving people who were our friends (we were so thankful for that), so many refused to try to understand her or accept her. How does a hurting teenage girl respond when she is 15 years old and believes that so many people, including adult youth leaders, are against her? She began to hate herself even more and take action on that sentiment. Self-injury, commonly known as cutting, became her go-to for relief. I know it may sound odd that I used the word “relief”, but we learned that when one self-injures, endorphins (feel good chemicals) are released in the brain. It is very easy for teenagers to conceal this with clothing and by acting happy, much to our dismay. We tried our hardest to love and support her the best we could as we desperately prayed for a way out of this dark period. Fortunately, God gave us a way out in 2014. Our house sold in 24 hours in an area where homes typically didn’t sell very quickly. He provided jobs for both my husband and I very quickly. There were so many answers to prayer during that time – so many, that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He never fails.
Eventually over time at age 16, we learned that our daughter had made a plan to end her life. Getting a phone call that your child just sent goodbye messages to one friend 30 minutes after you handed her the keys because she wanted to “get out for a little bit” is one of the worst feelings. It is difficult to put into words the helplessness, the anger, the despair we felt in that moment. How did we not see it? Our hearts were breaking for our daughter and the people who could have made a difference for good in her life made a choice. They chose to ignore her. They chose to withhold love and kindness. They chose to remain silent even though she was in the hospital three different times. It has been five years since that moment, and while our family has healed a great deal and learned to forgive over time (which is why I will not name the state, church, or names of individuals), I still ask the question “What if they had chosen to just be kind?” A place that should have shown the love of Christ ended up becoming a place that caused brutal damage.
It was because of our daughter’s recovery from severe self-injury and an eating disorder and her desire to care for other hurting teens that my sweet friend, Connie, nominated our 17 year old daughter for the Beauty Revived “50 Beautiful Seniors” campaign four years ago. She had a friend whom she met while living in another state who was a photographer. Meredith Ryncarz, an amazing photographer, captured our daughter for the campaign. For the first time, our sweet girl was able to tell her story. That experience really impacted our daughter and it meant so much to us as her parents. She felt pretty. She felt like she mattered. Most importantly though, she felt valued. No parent wants to see their child go through painful experiences. We know it is part of life, of course, but what if the adults and kids at that church and the school would have shown kindness and compassion instead of judgement and disgust toward her? Our actions, whether they are positive or negative, impact everyone around us. We all have the power to build others up or tear them down.
When I saw that Beauty Revived was accepting applications for the “50 Beautiful Children” campaign, I felt compelled to give. I was overjoyed in May when I got the email stating that I was one of 50 selected from around the country. It was truly an honor to be chosen to represent an organization which focuses on inner beauty. I had no idea who would be nominated or how many kids would be nominated, but I wanted to be able to give back and “pay it forward” for another family so that I could provide a positive experience that would build up and encourage a child. As a photographer, I have the capability to share stories and hopefully make people I come in to contact with feel good about themselves and feel cared about. Especially after the experience with our daughter, I desire to leave people feeling as though someone cares. After being selected as one of the Beauty Revived photographers, I set out to find a deserving child- one who makes a difference- to gift a session to. The nominations began coming in. There was one child who had multiple nominations. The theme of how “kind” this tiny 5-year old child was really stood out to me. Honestly, as I read her nominations, I began to get teary eyed. Meet Paisley. I’ve worked with primary students in public school as a classroom teacher. And while I have had some incredibly sweet students in my history as a Kindergarten teacher, I’ve never run into a child quite like Paisley. Her sweet demeanor melted my heart when I spoke with her for the first time. When I asked her why she liked to be so nice to others, she said, “I like to make friends. They are my friends.” She is sunshine. It was such an honor to not only photograph, but also to write an article to describe the sweet nature of this special gal. Being kind is a really big deal, and it is my hope that we will all learn a little from Paisley. She frequently puts others first, a trait which is usually not present in a 5 year old because of the nature of that stage of development. Even on the day I photographed her, after her mother told her that they would go get her a treat because she was doing such a good job during her session, Paisley told her mom that she wanted to get a treat for her baby brother too. She is a child to learn from and it is my sincere hope that we all pay attention to her message. I encourage you to check out her story on Beauty Revived here. Also, check out her feature on WTKR, News Channel 3: https://wtkr.com/2018/08/14/beauty-revived-national-campaign-features-local-child-for-kindness/
(Session Location: Williamsburg Botanical Garden, located in Williamsburg, Virginia)