Stephanie Smith hugs one of her photo subjects.

Photographer Offers Free Photo Shoots for Kids With Special Needs and Their Families

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It all started when Stephanie Smith read an article about a photographer who denied service to a potential client who has Down syndrome.

As an office manager who’d taken up photography as a hobby, she decided to use her skills to offer a remedy.

Smith gives away three photo shoots each month to children with special needs and their families.

One of Stephanie Smith's photo subjects smiles in a Superman shirt.

One of Stephanie Smith's subjects is shown giving a thumbs-up.

“99.9 percent of [parents] tell me how scared they are to reach out to photographers and put their children’s battles out for the world to see,” Smith told The Mighty.

That’s a predicament Smith understands well. Her sister, Melissa, was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurobiological disorder that left her paralyzed from the waist down, after beating cancer twice. And when Melissa’s story went viral and she received $450,000 in donations, her sister knew she wanted to give back somehow.

“Between knowing the financial strains special needs families have, and wanting my 3-year-old to see, treat and love everyone equally, it brought me here,” Smith told The Mighty.

Through Stephanie L. Smith Photography, based in Annapolis, Maryland, she’s completed 16 complimentary photo shoots. The only thing Smith asks in return from her subjects is a photo of the two of them together.

Stephanie Smith poses with one of her subjects.
Stephanie Smith poses with one of her subjects.
Stephanie Smith kisses one of her subjects.
Stephanie Smith and one of her subjects.
Stephanie Smith hugs one of her photo subjects.
Stephanie Smith hugs one of her photo subjects.

After all, Smith said, she’s the one who benefits most from the exchange.

“It means everything. It has taught me so much. I can’t put it into words,” Smith said. “[Taking these photos] has taught me patience, resilience, unconditional love, strength … the list goes on.”

Eventually, Smith hopes to open her own studio space, where she can conduct indoor shoots and accommodate children whose conditions don’t allow them to be outdoors for long periods of time. And on Friday, she’ll head to Wisconsin — a trip funded by friends and supporters — to photograph 2-year-old Charlie, whose mother, Cori Salchert, takes in hospice children left in the foster system.

Stephanie Smith poses with one of her subjects.
Stephanie Smith poses with one of her subjects.
Stephanie Smith hugs one of her photo subjects.
Stephanie Smith hugs one of her photo subjects.

For now, she’ll continue offering free photo shoots — and reaping the benefits:

“What these families have given me does not even compare to the small gift I am giving them.”

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How Eating Healthy Food Makes Me Sick

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You won’t find many fruits or vegetables in my fridge. In the fruit crisper, you might see some golden delicious apples and a few pears. But both must be peeled before I can safely eat them. As for vegetables? I’m free to eat white cabbage, iceberg lettuce, celery and white potatoes — peeled. The reason? I’m have salicylate sensitivity. Just about everything else contains salicylates, particularly produce that has been picked when under ripe.

The good news is that meat, fish, eggs, baked beans, along with bread and some cheeses are trouble free. I’m on a basic, pale-colored, fattening-if-I’m-not-careful diet. No chocolate. Ditto for beer, wine, tea, soft drinks (although I can tolerate club soda), all alcohol except scotch (hooray!) and rye. 

Forget about eating at restaurants, and condiments are out. So is pepper and lemon juice, but what joy, limes are on the OK list. I won’t die of scurvy.

Before my allergist discovered the source of my sensitivities, I was a health-food nut. I had swapped butter for olive oil and ate fruits and veggies by the basket load, but my unexplained breathing and swallowing problems became so severe that I lost 30 pounds in just a few months because of an inability to get food in due to daily choking episodes.

These dangerous-to-me salicylates aren’t just in food. All of our chemical fragrances contain them, as well as grasses, flowers and weeds. One doctor even told me to “run the other way” from people who are wearing clothing scented with dryer sheets. This behavior, of course, is death on my social life. Some families have even told me this is all in my head because these substances cause no problems to them. 

Salicylate sensitivity (also called salicylate allergy) makes employment, school and social gatherings difficult. I try hard not to become a recluse, but many times I have arrived at the home of a friend only to turn around and leave because they have mopped the floor with a scented cleanser or invited other guests whose sunscreen, perfume or hair products initiate breathing problems for me. I wear a mask on airplanes, preferring to endure the snickers and stares than risk an asthma attack.

This might sound depressing, but I’m actually thrilled to have discovered the reason for my trips to the hospital for EpiPens, steroids and intravenous antihistamines. Besides, I haven’t told you what’s in my freezer: Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, the only commercially prepared treat that’s safe for me.

If you think you may have salicylate sensitivity, you can find an easy-to-follow list of the salicylate content of foods online at http://salicylatesensitivity.com/about/food-guide/.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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16 Things That Can Happen When You Become a Special Needs Parent

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I believe when you have a child with special needs…

1. You are fierce (with your knowledge and your heart).

2. You become a fighter.

3. You love more than you ever thought possible (true for having children period!).

4. You cry at the smallest things.

5. You get much less sleep.

6. You have constant “brain fog.”

7. You have mountains of paperwork.

8. You become a hoarder of paper clips.

9. You know owning a scanner/copier is a necessity.

10. You celebrate milestones no matter how small.

11. You may sit in your car in your driveway to decompress, and sometimes cry.

12. You get snippy if your “stories” are interrupted  you know, the ones you’ve DVR’d that you’ve been waiting all week to see, and if you don’t see them, you might implode.

13. You may think about taking vacations by yourself so you don’t have to speak to anyone, except maybe the flight attendant and the bartender when you get there.

14. You wish you had a babysitter.

15. You pray you live forever.

16. You require an entourage of people who love you, would reach the moon for you and who will help you.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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12 Things a 'Highly-Sensitive Person' Needs

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If you’re a highly sensitive person like me, you know little things can be too much. Busy environments, violent images in movies or weekends with little downtime can stress you out. Because you’re so in tune with your environment and other people, life can be pretty exhausting, which makes you withdraw — and non-sensitives don’t understand.

But there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not alone. High sensitivity is actually fairly common, found in 15 to 20 percent of the population, according to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, author of the book, “The Highly Sensitive Person

.” Both introverts and extroverts can be sensitive, as well as people of all personality types, although high sensitivity is probably more common among INFPs and INFJs.

If you’re highly sensitive, it means you need to take extra care of yourself — otherwise, your sensitive nature could aggravate existing conditions like depression and anxiety. Sadly, because many people don’t understand what high sensitivity is, you may have been told to “toughen up” or “just get over it.” You may have always felt different from other people, but you didn’t have a name for what you were.

High sensitivity can make life challenging but not impossible. When I’m in a routine and doing plenty of self-care, I forget about my sensitivity. But a recent trip reminded me of just how frazzled my senses can get. I was rushing from one activity to the next, hanging out in loud, crowded bars and restaurants, and meeting many new people. To top it all off, I wasn’t getting enough sleep or the kind of exercise that makes me feel good, like cardio and yoga. After five days of “vacation,” I was completely fried.

How can we as highly sensitive people cope with our trait? Here are 12 things we need to take care of our mental health:

1. Time to decompress.

Noisy, busy environments — like a crowded mall during the holidays, a concert or a big party — can wreak havoc on a sensitive person’s highly reactive nervous system. Likewise, packed schedules and high-pressure situations, like a job interview or the first day in a new school, are overstimulating. If you know you’ll be in situation that will frazzle you, plan some time to decompress in a quiet space afterward. It’s best if you can be alone.

2. Meaningful relationships.

We get bored or restless in relationships that lack meaningful interaction, according to Aron. This doesn’t mean we’re prone to relationship hopping, rather, we actually work harder to inspire intimacy and interesting conversation. It also means we’re selective about the people we let into our lives to begin with.

Interestingly, many sensitive people are great to be in a relationship with because they not only tune in to what’s good for them, but also to what’s good for others. They pay close attention to what their significant other wants. Aron calls this characteristic “mate sensitivity,” which means the ability to rapidly figure out what pleases their partner and act based on that intel. This behavior goes for friends, family members and co-workers as well.

Basically, it makes us happy to make others happy.

3. People who support us.

Sensitive people may cry or become emotional a lot. “Sensitive people can’t help but express what they’re feeling,” Aron told the Huffington Post. “They show their anger, they show their happiness. Appreciating that is really important.”

4. A gentle, healthy way of managing conflict.

No matter who you are, fighting with a loved one is miserable. But sensitive people tend to feel extra anxious when conflict arises — and an internal battle takes place. We feel torn between speaking up for what we believe is right and sitting back so we don’t provoke an angry reaction from the other person. Often we subjugate our own needs because we’d rather “go along to get along” than fight.

On the other hand, sensitive people can make great conflict resolvers, because we tend to see the other person’s perspective. We have high levels of empathy and can easily put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

5. Time to get things done.

Sensitive people like a slower pace of life. We like pondering all our options before making a decision and regularly reflecting on our experiences. We hate busy schedules and rushing from one event to the next. One of the hardest parts of my day during the work week is getting moving in the morning and leaving my apartment on time. Saturday mornings, when I don’t have to work, are for going at my own pace. It’s calming and restorative to know I don’t have to be dressed and ready to go anywhere anytime soon.

6. Plenty of sleep.

Lack of sleep (less than seven hours a night, for most people) makes the average person irritable and less productive, but lack of sleep for the sensitive person can make life almost unbearable. Getting enough sleep soothes my ramped-up senses and helps me process my thoughts and emotions. How much sleep I get can literally make or break my next day. Without proper sleep, every little stressor seems 10 times worse.

7. Healthy meals spaced regularly throughout the day.

When I don’t eat regularly, I get hangry. This is because, according to Aron, extreme hunger can mess up a sensitive person’s mood or concentration. To fend off feelings of crankiness and discombobulation, maintain a steady blood sugar level throughout the day by eating regular healthy meals and snacks.

8. Caffeine-free options.

Sensitive people (surprise, surprise) are sensitive to caffeine. I drink one cup of coffee in the morning to get me going, but I don’t have any caffeine past noon. Even a mug of green tea later in the day would leave me tossing and turning at night. Plus, having too much caffeine leaves me feeling jittery and wound up in an uncomfortable way.

If you’re sensitive, consider limiting your coffee, soda and tea intake. Watch out for sneaky sources of caffeine, like chocolate. Remember, the darker the chocolate, the more caffeine. For example, Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Bar has 31 milligrams of caffeine, which is almost as much as a can of Coke!

9. A space of our own.

If you live with others, make sure you have a quiet place you can retreat to when you need to get away from noise and people. Turn on your favorite music to drown out any unpleasant external noise.

10. Low lighting.

If possible, turn off the overhead lights in your home or office and substitute a lamp.

11. Time to adjust to change.

Transitions aren’t easy for anybody. (Hey! Who moved my cheese?)  But for sensitive people, transitions can be really rough. Even positive changes, like starting a new relationship or moving into a dream home, can be overstimulating and require an extra long period of adjustment. For example, I recently moved into a wonderful new apartment in a city I enjoy, but I literally felt off-kilter for months until I got used to my new situation.

12. Beauty and nature.

Like most sensitive people, I’m deeply affected by my surroundings, especially the way they look. Cluttered, chaotic or just plain ugly environments bother me. I feel calm spending time in nature, my city’s favorite neighborhoods or my simply decorated apartment (especially when it’s actually clean and tidy!).

When it comes down to it, the key is to embrace your sensitivity rather than work against it. Sensitive people make incredible leaders, partners and friends. We have high levels of empathy and we’re usually creative and perceptive. Maybe the world could use a little more of what we have.

This piece originally appeared on Introvert, Dear. Click here for more stories about being an introvert or highly sensitive person.

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To the Woman Taking Care of Everyone but Yourself

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I turned 40 years old two months ago, and I believe I have a lot to show for these decades. I got married. And then divorced. I’ve been caretaker to my mom during her breast cancer. And again with her uterine cancer. I’ve traveled to 18 countries. I’ve lived in five states. I’ve mentored more than 50 women. I had my first breast tumor removed at 21 and my second at 22. I’ve had 40 breast ultrasounds and two mammograms to make sure we catch what’s next. I’ve given two eulogies. I’ve worked for eight companies. And I’ve founded three of my own.

Now I have new numbers to add. Two of my friends have multiple sclerosis (MS). One friend has uterine cancer. One has Cushing’s disease. And as of one week ago, my best friend since age 12 has tongue cancer. None of these five friends have reached 40.  

And their common denominator? All of them are oldest or only daughters.

I am not a scientist, a sociologist or an anthropologist. I do not write this bearing scientific proof, although I am now determined to find it. I do not write bearing any agenda except to open eyes a little wider. I do not write to protect a daughter, although I mother in many different ways.

All of us only/oldest daughters were raised to be the “helper,” the “big sister,” the “protector,” the “one to make things better” for everyone else. That was our role. A role mostly asked of us, given to us and many times, yes, assumed of us. We are a tribe of people-pleasers. Of self-de-prioritizers. We have to be reminded to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first. We absorb resentment. We swallow the need for attention. We silence our own personal needs to champion our brothers, our younger sisters or our parents.

I have many, many more oldest/only daughter friends who are on the brink of disease. Who bathe in and out of depression medications. Who drink to numb their truth. Who pour themselves into work for the sake of validating their worth. For the sake of maybe finally being enough.  

This manifesto is a wake-up call to the incredible, the generous and the selfless women of my generation. I know I am not alone in having too many friends that are struggling with diagnoses too young.  

After three days together navigating a cancer center in Houston and now on a plane to LA for a second opinion, I watch as my best friend – whose own mom died of cancer when she was 5 – sleeps against the window. She’s done nothing in her life but mother her sister, be caretaker to her father, champion eight younger cousins and now be a single mom to her daughter. She’s done nothing but take care of others, and now it is her turn to be taken care of. Her one catalyst came in the form of cancer on the organ that is essential for her to be heard: her mouth. There’s no irony in this. Only the sobering truth of what she represents.   

I challenge you, selfless one, to embrace self-care. To acknowledge you are not invincible. To recognize it is time to put yourself first. How many catalysts does it/should it/must it take for you to finally stop fearing others’ judgments, and to understand the reality and the mortality of your own life? There is no embossed badge, no shiny trophy, no freshly baked chocolate chip cookie given to you for being sick with fear over others’ points of view instead of solely focusing on your own.

I challenge you, selfless one, to strive to give yourself the love and support you deserve.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Share a story about one moment or conversation related to a cancer diagnosis or experience that made an impact on you. Find out how to email us a story submission here.

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25 Self-Care Strategies in the Wake of a Nightmarish Year

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I’m heartbroken and exhausted.

I know I’m not alone in this.

When tragedy strikes, as it has repeatedly this year, I go through the same routine as many: I cry, I stay up too late watching the news coverage, I wake up and read story after story about the aftermath and the lives lost and impacted, I pray, I cry some more, I try to distract myself, I feel guilty about distracting myself, I pray some more, and then I go back to the news coverage. Obsessively.

I first experienced this cycle as a sophomore in college at Texas A&M, living out a nightmare after the Bonfire collapse on our campus killed 12 students and injured many others. Grief surrounded us. Not for days and weeks, but for years. We watched as logs and friends were carried away, and once the news cameras left, we tried to reconcile the life of a “carefree college student” with the tragedy we had witnessed.

Two years later, we huddled around campus televisions in horror as planes flew into the Twin Towers. Once again, classes and activities were canceled, and public mourning and tragedy became our education.

As someone who leans into grief, I never learned a healthy balance. And as a writer, I crave authentic stories. Whether it’s one life or hundreds lost, I’m left heartbroken and with an insatiable urge to learn more about those who died or are left behind.

I struggle with the self-care strategies I know I should be doing, because I feel guilty that I’m left unharmed and alive to actually do them. “Turn off the television and go meet some friends for dinner! Or pamper yourself with a massage or pedicure! Go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of nature!”

How? All I want to do is focus on whatever disaster or tragedy is in front of me, because tuning it out feels like turning a blind eye.

But, dear reader, please hear me when I say … it is OK to turn off the television. It is OK to log off social media and avert your eyes as you walk past newspaper and magazine stands. And it’s OK to excuse yourself from the conversation from time to time.

Self-care is not the same thing as selfishness.

Those of us who have depression and/or anxiety spend many days living in a darkness that feels beyond our control. When a different darkness presents itself in the form of unspeakable tragedy, we are allowed to control our exposure. In fact, we must.

Self-care is not selfish. It’s an act of love for ourselves and our families. It’s putting our oxygen mask on first so we still have the breath to help others when they need it.

Below is a list of 25 self-care strategies for the times you feel powerless and need to disengage, but also want to bring more light into the world.

1. Write a love letter.

2. Go through your home and select 15 items to donate to charity.

3. Actually donate the items that have been sitting in your car or closets for months.

4. Go for a run. Smile at someone as they pass you.

5. Pay for someone’s coffee.

6. Mail a $20 bill to your old address, or to your old college mailbox. Anonymously.

7. Pray.

8. Offer to treat a friend to lunch.

9. Deliver cookies to a local firehouse or police station.

10. Write a thank-you note to someone with a thankless job.

11. Go see a movie. Pay for a stranger’s movie ticket.

12. Listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack. (Or other music, but seriously, start with “Hamilton.”)

13. Create something — art, music, crafts, a story, food, anything.

14. Get a haircut and donate your locks.

15. Visit your local children’s hospital website and see if they need any new toys or volunteers.

16. Take your dog for a long walk around the lake or park. Learn a dog owner’s name.

17. Read a magazine and then donate your old magazines to a doctor’s office for the waiting room.

18. Send a thank-you card to someone “just for being a friend.”

19. Invite your extended family over for a cookout or potluck.

20. Deliver a hot meal to a new mom. Hug that baby.

21. Play at the park with your kids. Volunteer with your kids. Hug your kids.

22. Take a bubble bath. Because they are awesome.

23. E-mail/tweet your favorite author or musician and let them know how much their work has meant to you. Then re-read or re-watch it.

24. Call your mom or dad. If they’re no longer living, share your favorite memory of them with a friend.

25. Get in the car and just drive. Someplace new, someplace familiar, anywhere. Just be out in the world, searching for goodness and beauty.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images




25 Self-Care Strategies in the Wake of a Nightmarish Year

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