Kids in Focus is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to empowering at-risk youth to reach their potential using photography to ignite their imagination and build their sense of confidence. Tapping into the power and universal language of photography, Kids in Focus enables children to gain a new perspective on themselves and their environment. The kids’ eyes open to their potential for creativity and success by learning new ways of connecting with others and the world.
Founder Karen Shell’s lifelong pursuit of helping kids and families in need began in the early ’90s. After emerging from an abusive and challenging home-life as a child, she was driven to give back and help others by her early 20s. During her first six years of volunteering, Karen fed the homeless, played softball with the kids at The Salvation Army, and celebrated birthdays with the kids at domestic abuse shelters. She took kids from the West Valley Child Crisis Center on adventures, mentored girls at Florence Crittenton, read to the homeless children at UMOM, played kickball with the adult mentally disabled at Civitan House, and much more.
Karen created the first Kids in Focus project to teach kids to see themselves and the world with a new perspective
Karen soon began to create projects of her own. Her first was to fix up the Vista Colina domestic abuse shelter, including installing a playground and painting the buildings. One of Karen’s most notable projects is Picture Day, which she coordinated for 20 years. Picture Day has provided free school portraits for up to 1000 students per year at both the Tempe and Phoenix campuses of the Thomas J. Pappas Schools for the homeless (later becoming Children First Academy). Hairstylists styled the kids’ hair, photographers put smiles on the kids’ faces, and McKenna photo lab printed a packet of pictures for these kids who would not otherwise have them. Karen also organized similar projects to provide family portraits for the families at UMOM homeless shelter as well as make-overs and portraits for the women at the Watkins homeless shelter.
Through Picture Day, Karen developed close relationships with the kids and staff at Pappas/CFA. She began mentoring kids there and created additional projects, such as shoe drives and reading programs. She also organized multiple donors to provide Christmas gifts for a grade of 25-30 kids each year. After becoming particularly close to a class of 4th graders, for whom she provided Christmas, Karen began mentoring them and spending as much time in class with them as she could over the next five years.
While mentoring these kids, Karen created the first Kids in Focus project to teach them to see themselves and the world with a new perspective. At the completion, Karen was amazed by the transformations she saw in the kids she had known for five years. She realized she had finally found a way to make a difference in these kids’ lives and turned Kids in Focus into a 501(c)(3) in 2012, which she has been growing ever since. Karen feels her whole life has been grooming her to create Kids in Focus.
Alongside her 26 years of service to the kids and families in our community, Karen has supported herself as a commercial photographer, working for advertising clients worldwide. Her three-decade career has continually reminded her of the powerful value of seeing outside oneself; her passion for life is a testament to seeing beyond one’s circumstances. In 2017, Phoenix Home & Garden magazine profiled Karen as one of the “10 Western Women We Admire” for her years of dedication helping those in need.