Thursday, November 30th, 2023

Then & Now


One photograph of one photograph.

I made the picture after spending some time with a family returning to their New Orleans home three months after Hurricane Katrina. Dave saw it and told me he had an idea.

He asked me what I thought about trying to help people save their photos. Not just preserving them, but trying to give them something new that won’t continue to dissolve in their hands.

And so it started. Our employers at the Free Lance-Star were gracious and supportive enough to send us when they heard what we were doing. We contacted Miss Sally, a librarian who had moved her books into a trailer by the beach. We sent down flyers. We packed up Dave’s truck with a printer, two computers, cameras and a copy stand and made our way to Pass Christian, Mississippi.

Looking back on it all, we had no idea what was about to hit us. We actually thought we could copy, restore and print out the images for the families on the spot during the four and a half day trip. We were very wrong. By the end of the week we had gathered more than 500 photographs from over 40 families. We restored, we talked to residents, we copied photographs, we occasionally cried (don’t tell Dave I said that… he really just got choked up a couple of times).

And Dave blogged. It was meant to be a way to talk to family and friends, but the word soon spread. Instead of restoring photographs, I started responding to hundreds of emails offering to help.

That’s how it started: email. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. That’s how volunteers signed up and how photographs got sent out and restored photographs sent back.

Once I got back to Virginia, my life became waking up before my first job in the morning and sending emails, coming home from my second job in the evenings and printing photos. Only my husband will every understand the hours that were put in during that time. Dave handled taking on new volunteers and I took care of getting each work. Dave’s wife Angela was a motivational force on top of taking on the process of making OPR a honest to goodness non-profit. Mike jumped on board a few months later and found us Photoshelter, a true blessing to my overflowing Inbox.

I’d love to say that every part of this was good, but there were definitely moments and emails among the hundreds that made us wonder why we were doing this at all. But then there were the notes from people as they received their prints and the mounds of new volunteers coming in. Those notes and calls that made us want to go again. And so we went: the second trip to Metairie, Louisiana.

John jumped on board and volunteered to build OPR another blessing in a website. Finally, a place we could communicate and let volunteers communicate with one another. It made it feel real.

The work didn’t become less, but the workflow definitely became more manageable. I still did OPR work constantly, including during my honeymoon in Belize one year after the first trip.

Some volunteers would take one photograph to restore and others would take hundreds. For all of the donated hours behind a computer screen and a mouse, I am thankful. Other brave volunteers donated time to make copy runs. Thanks to those donated hours OPR helped people during Katrina, tornados, floods and fires.

A few months after OPR’s first anniversary, I decided I was going to go to graduate school. I was hoping to stay involved with OPR, but trying to get school done in one year made that difficult. Christine came on board and picked up where I had to leave off, and helped give me peace about pursuing something else.

I have to admit, the break was nice. There were many weeks when I worked well over 40 hours just on OPR. As I’m sure all of the volunteers can attest – and now Margie, Hannie, Tess, Jan and OPR’s quality control volunteer who prefers to remain anonymous – OPR is a never-ending amount of work. You just have to know when to stop for the day.

My day has lasted almost a year.

I was able to accomplish a lot. I am almost finished with school, left a job and started a new one at the same newspaper, and I traveled to Peru and Chile (trading Syracuse cold for Patagonia cold).

This story of the beginnings when it was just three of us isn’t meant to be a pat on the back, but to be a reminder at how the goodness in the hearts of the volunteers has made the organization what it is. From my standpoint, it is amazing that so many people can believe in the power of doing something seemingly small, yet so unique and meaningful, for others. New leadership and the help that came throughout keeps the organization fresh. We may not be able to put a roof back over people’s heads, and we may not be perfect, but we can give people a reminder of a cherished memory.

Looking at how far OPR has come, it is hard to believe it all started with a couple of computers, cameras, a printer and an email account. Looking at OPR then and OPR now, the possibilities are endless.

– Becky Sell

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