February 2012 issue, by Emilie Sommer
When I was a kid volunteering was like drinking milk with dinner, you just did it.
I credit my parents for taking it one step further, for recognizing and gently fostering an interest in helping others. They understood when I wanted to donate my Christmas gifts and when I asked to make Easter baskets for those in need at my birthday parties. They encouraged me to volunteer my time as much as I could through the local youth group and as a summer counselor at the Boys and Girls Club.
Life now is clearly very different than it was then. Kids and adults alike are overscheduled, spending less and less time outdoors and it’s not surprising that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report that the volunteer rate in the US continues to decline.
During college I helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity in Georgia for spring break. A photojournalism major, I brought my camera along and documented every step of our experience. A light turned on within me and it’s a moment I can easily pinpoint as the first time I felt a deeper purpose in my pursuit of a career in photography. I accepted an offer to join the photography staff at USA Today when I graduated, and as a young professional in Washington, DC, participated in walks to raise money for breast cancer and later photographed them. I count a recent trip to photograph a New England fitness team visiting St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis among the most moving and rewarding opportunities to volunteer with my camera.
Photographers have a unique ability to help a charity by providing more than just our time. We are historians to the cause, capturing the mundane and the momentous. By sharing our skill, a charity can boost its fundraising campaigns, website and every visual touchpoint within their organization using our professional photographs. No other occupation comes close to such grassroots involvement.
It was in DC that I started my business, emilie inc. photography, but it wasn’t until I moved to Maine a few years later that I decided to develop my longstanding annual donation to breast cancer research into a formal organization. Founded in honor of my mother’s best friend who passed away from the disease when I was an impressionable 12 year old girl, Pink Initiative was recognized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 2008. We are a collection of wedding industry professionals and private donors who share a common dedication to spread awareness and help fund a cure for breast cancer. From caterers and coordinators to photographers and pianists, our membership runs the wedding vendor spectrum.
Each year we select a different recipient for the monies raised. In 2011 we gave to the Triple Negative Breast CancerFoundation, an organization doing great work for this rare subtype responsible for approximately 25% of breast cancer deaths. In 2010 we partnered with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s mobile mammography service and sponsored a van day in a low-income area of Boston, gifting mammograms to 35 women who otherwise couldn’t afford this important test. Five of those screenings came back with abnormal results. Gives me chills to think we had a hand in potentially saving five lives!
Members are encouraged to go beyond a cash donation and host an event within their own community to help bring attention to the cause and further our reach on a local level. Chicago coordinators at Engaging Events hosted a charity golf tournament with a raffle, silent auction and awards for best dressed in pink. Houston event planners Event Craze dedicated the launch of their business to Pink Initiative with a swanky party of pink food and drink. Tampa planners Elan Event Studio threw an over-the-top networking soiree including go-go dancers adorned with pink wigs. Corporations have also gotten involved including Prepare to Wed, a national wedding planning resource that donates a percentage of its membership subscription dues to Pink Initiative. Invitation Consultants, an online invitation and stationery store, has a special line of cards whose profit is donated to Pink Initiative. Likewise, Seabags created a custom tote bag from recycled sails featuring our logo for our website’s marketplace. Profits from sales are donated back to Pink Initiative.
It’s been truly inspiring to see the enthusiasm, involvement and sense of community Pink Initiative has become. It’s not all administrative for me, I’ve enjoyed taking part in the fundraising as well! In addition to donating a portion of the profit from every wedding I photograph, I once raffled off an entire wedding photography package. The winner was a wedding planner in Costa Rica who gifted the prize to two brides marrying on back-to-back days and each shared my travel expenses. I also went on a weeklong 5-city portrait tour from Maine to Virginia a few years ago. Most of the couples, babies, families and their pets were former wedding clients, a great way to stay connected long after their wedding day. I timed it for the early fall and included a set of holiday cards. All of the money I collected was donated, including any additional print sales.
Photographers, we’ve seen, are the most active within our group. Hosting mini portrait sessions in the fall, for Valentine’s Day or for Mother’s Day tend to be our members most popular fundraisers. Mini sessions are several 30 minute portrait sessions in succession that take place in one location, usually at a park or beach. A fee is set, likely a reduced rate from a regular portrait session, and is a donation to Pink Initiative. The beauty is that there is very little preparation work involved once you’ve settled on the logistics of when and where. Announcing mini sessions to take place in two weeks, let’s say, creates a buzz of excitement and motivates people to reserve their spot right away. Part of the fun, I think, is the timed element on the day of the fundraiser, and it is communicated very clearly ahead of time that everyone must stay on schedule for it to be a success.
I was recently interviewed for an article and was asked if aligning with a charity boosts business. Indeed it does, but it’s certainly not as if I slapped a pink ribbon on my brand to hook clients. I give because I can. It’s part of me and I love that I have my business as a platform to share my message with a larger audience. I tend to gravitate towards businesses that give to charity or give back to the community in my own life, and have found the same to be true for our emilie inc. clientele. Including information about my work for breast cancer research prominently on our website is intentional. I want prospective clients to know what is important to me, what I stand for and how they are a part of that process. It also opens the door for couples to share how breast cancer may have touched their lives from the very beginning of our relationship.
My heart aches at weddings when there’s an empty chair at the ceremony or the obvious absence of a parent dance during the reception. As a new mom, I could not fathom that scene without me in it and hate that it is so common. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. I have photographed more than 300 weddings. That’s at least 37 emilie inc. brides who will come face to face with this disease. Last month we received this email from the first.
I was always struck at how proactive you are in breast cancer awareness and advocacy. I had considered going to your Pink Initiative photo shoot but with a 4 month old daughter I wasn’t sure we could make the trek up from Nashua, NH. Little did I know that on November 22nd our lives would change forever when I received the phone call, at the age of 34, that I have breast cancer. I am one month into my four month regimen of chemo to be followed by surgery and radiation. It is a scary time for sure and one that has seen plenty of tears. But I vow to do something like you have. As Lance Armstrong has made it his motto “it is the obligation of the cured.”
I’m not even sure why I am emailing you except that I’ve had this sense that I should and I’m no longer ignoring those little quiet still voices that prompt me as it had when my doctor told me the lump in my breast was nothing to worry about back in August. Thank God my mother prompted me in November to get it checked and that I listened to her voice.
Be well and keep doing amazing things.
For more information and to join our cause, please visit pinkinitiative.org.