What started as a side gig is now a pay-it-forward project inspiring others

This photographer has a lens for love.

Stephanie Smith isn't just a professional with a side gig. Her weekend photography business has become a full-fledged pay-it-forward awareness project. The goal? Making children with special needs and their families smile.

Smith, a 28-year-old office manager, started offering families with special-needs children free portrait sessions and prints (which usually cost about $200). Families across the U.S. started contacting her, and the overwhelming positive feedback rolled in.

So she started Lenses for Love, a site that connects photographers with families who can't afford a photo shoot or who have been made to feel uncomfortable by photographers who aren't willing to put in the extra effort needed to work with a child with special needs.

Smith has personally done 17 free shoots and is encouraging other photographers to do the same.

For her, a successful side hustle is not about money. "It can't always be about how much money you can make," she said. "When you give back, the blessing comes back times 10. I truly believe that."

After each photo shoot, Smith takes a photo with the child.
Source: Stephanie Smith | LensesForLove

Expenses are funded through GoFundMe campaigns, and Smith uses any extra money to purchase toys, gadgets or new clothes for the disabled children.

When one family in Wisconsin wanted her to take photographs of their terminally ill child, for instance, Smith raised $1,900 to cover the cost of travel and accommodations. With the $400 she had left over, she purchased the child an iPad.

The idea for Lenses for Love came after Smith saw firsthand how expensive medical costs can be.

Her older sister, Melissa, survived cancer twice, only to be diagnosed with a rare neurological disease that paralyzed her from the chest down.

"My sister was the main thing that inspired me," Smith said. "We were preparing to put her in a nursing home and were facing huge costs."

The kindness of thousands of strangers and Chive Charities, who together raised $450,000, helped to save her sister.

"There's no doubt in my mind she would not be here today if it weren't for the kindness of these people, of these complete strangers," Smith said. "After that, it clicked — I have to pay it forward."

Lenses for Love is growing every day, with Smith connecting professional photographers in other states to families with special-needs children who have requested a family portrait.

"I just want our society to change what people see as beautiful and to stop being so judgmental," Smith said. "I want people to look at them as kids first."

Video by TJ Fabian with additional reporting by Christina Scolaro.

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