Photos From Coast to Coast Capture Lives on the Way Up

PURSUING THE DREAM: WHAT HELPS CHILDREN AND THEIR FAMILIES SUCCEED

By Stephen Shames

Aperture

160 pp., $40

For decades, photojournalist Stephen Shames took pictures of people in trouble. Homeless families. Kids in gangs, on drugs, as prostitutes. Victims of child abuse.

Such stuff is all too familiar on the front pages of many newspapers. "I had become disillusioned, believing there were no solutions for these problems," Mr. Shames says.

But instead of accepting that desperate picture, Shames turned his lens toward positive light, in search of solutions. Led by the question "What works?" he spent two years traveling the country, documenting those people striving for a better life - and succeeding. The news is good. Every day, at-risk families are achieving financial and emotional stability. The common denominator: family support programs.

From Avance in Texas to Family Focus in Chicago, more than 200 programs beckoned Shames. With support from the Family Resource Coalition in Chicago, he honed his list to 30 programs traveling from Maine to Hawaii. He documents his project in the book "Pursuing the Dream: What Helps Children and Their Families Succeed." Some examples:

* At Girls Inc. in Costa Mesa, Calif., girls ages 6 to 18 are taught how to avoid pregnancy and become "strong, smart, and bold."

* In Liberty, Ky., the Family Resource and Youth Services Center helps parents learn more about child development and helps them find child-care solutions.

* In Portland, Ore., Friends of the Children pairs at-risk children with adult mentors.

Shames calls the book the culmination of a very personal mission, one that revealed much spirituality.

People - many of them volunteers - talked about a journey and their conviction to serve those in need, Shames says during a phone interview. He estimates that at least one-third of the people who work in programs have a religious connection. "It's clear to them that religion is a very important part of life. They're trying to live their beliefs in helping people." Oftimes the media downplay this, he says.

At the same time, many of these people are not Mother Teresa, Shames says, they are "ordinary people doing extraordinary things." They know community is crucial for a healthy family, and where there is no community, they are there creating it.

"Community-based family-support programs give birth to spiritual and pragmatic solutions," Shames says. These successful programs are not that dissimilar from successful corporations in what they do, he notes. The solution to the nation's problems already exists, Shames suggests. A ripple effect is noticeable once community life is strengthened, and children and parents gain valuable skills.

The project was funded by the Ford Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. It indirectly follows Shames's 1991 project "Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America" published by the Children's Defense Fund. (Both books are distributed by Aperture.)

"I'm hoping that some of these images will become icons to counterbalance the negative images that people have in their minds," says Shames.

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