Beauty doesn't always come in a 'perfect' package.<br>
When Maryland photographer Stephanie Smith arrived in Milwaukee to photograph Charlie, a little boy in hospice, she didn't know what to expect.
She had already photographed 16 children living with health issues and disabilities but never one who lived day-to-day with oxygen and a feeding tube. However, all it took was a few moments with Charlie for her to completely fall in love.
"I looked at him and touched his sweet face and just broke down," Smith said.
Charlie has a neurological impairment called hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, which means his brain is deprived of an adequate oxygen supply. He has survived longer than his doctors expected, and while it's difficult for him to show emotion, that didn't stop Smith from forming a deep connection with him.
And it's the same with all the kids she photographs.
In early 2016, Smith began her journey of photographing kids with disorders, disabilities, and differences, thanks to a mom whose child has autism.
The girl's mom had scheduled a photo shoot for her daughter with a professional photographer, but the photographer canceled the shoot when he found out the little girl had autism, saying that she was not his "ideal client."
At that moment, Smith knew she had to do something to right this wrong.
Smith has firsthand experience of what life is like with a loved one who has an illness and disability.
Her sister Melissa fought and beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice before developing transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disease that left her paralyzed from the chest down.
Thanks to a $400,000 grant from Chive's Charities, however, Melissa is now living an almost completely independent life.
That incredible generosity inspired Smith to move ahead with her plan to give back, a project she called Lenses for Love.
Lenses for Love is an ongoing project in which Smith donates photoshoots to families of children with disabilities, disorders, and health conditions.
Smith knows that it isn't easy for families to afford things like photo shoots when they're already financial strained by medical bills, but that's only one reason she's offering her services free of charge.
The other reason is to help change the stigma that can surround people with disabilities and differences.
"I want to open up that dialogue, get rid of that fear, and change what our society says is beautiful," Smith says.
When Smith put out word about Lenses for Love on Facebook, she was immediately flooded with responses from parents.
Her offer was answering a need that many, many families of disabled children have — for their child to be looked at just like every other cute kid.
Smith is only one woman (who also has a son and works full time as an office manager), so she's only been able to give photo shoots to three families a month. She's on a mission to change that.
"I want to build a platform for other photographers who will step up and donate their time and services to these families," she said.
She's currently working to expand her page and make it more of a crowdsourcing site where photographers from around the country can volunteer their services too.
Smith's photos are truly wonderful, but she wants the attention to remain on the kids she photographs.
Smith says no matter their struggles, they're all strong, resilient, happy kids who inspire her every day — and that goes double for their parents.
She's built lasting relationships with all the families and refers to them as "my family." They are incredibly supportive, she said, and are just thrilled their kids can have these photographic experiences.
At the end of the day, parents just want photos that treat their kids the same as any other, taken by a photographer who can make them feel comfortable. And that's exactly what Smith does.