Watching a slideshow of photographs filled with parents holding their children, some kissing their sick infant's head or sharing a look of devastation with their partner as they clutch their dying child, you may wonder what type of person is strong enough to be able to capture these last moments of an innocent child’s life.
“I remember the kids,” said Hartland, MI, photographer , who says her ability to see the world differently gives her the strength to help these families. "I think that’s why I can do that stuff and see their emotion and feel it. I don’t think I could do what I do without feeling.”
Founded in 2003, Drallos' nonprofit organization, The American Child Photographers Charity Guild, is now a worldwide service of more than 8,000 photographers, including a few in central Connecticut Patch communities such as Glastonbury, Ivoryton, Portland, Southington and Windsor. Photographers in these towns and others across the country take professional pictures of sick or dying children for their families at no cost.
To help raise money to support the charity, Drallos offers "portrait parties" throughout the year with 100 percent of the proceeds going to The American Child Photographers Charity Guild.
Watching as her work flashes across the screen, Drallos is able to remember each child, each family and every story of why she was called in to preserve a moment for a grieving family.
“That baby was so sweet,” Drallos says as she gives a small smile while looking at a photo of a big-eyed baby on the computer screen. “I’ve never seen a baby fight so hard to live.”
Crediting the idea to her mother, who died of cancer in 1997, Drallos says she was the one who told her before she died that something important was waiting for Drallos and she would do something great with her photography.
Seven months pregnant with her daughter, Carrigan, when her mother passed, Drallos decided against returning to work as a special education teacher and instead began focusing on her photography business.
It wasn’t until four years later, however, after receiving a call from some acquaintances who knew she was a photographer that Drallos figured out exactly what she was supposed to be doing with her talent to help others.
“They (the parents) called me and asked me if I would photograph their twin baby girls who came premature,” Drallos said. “They were so tiny. I did two rolls of film, it took me like 20 minutes. I did their feet, did everything, I just felt like I had to capture everything about these babies.”
Leaving the hospital that first time, Drallos says she cried the whole way home while the baby girls passed away just hours after having their pictures taken.
Several months later, Drallos saw the twins' mother at a Christmas party.
“She said to me, “I think about you every day and I thank God for you. All I have left of my girls is what you gave me,”” Drallos said.
That is the moment Drallos realized what it was she was supposed to be doing.
"It all went together," she said. "I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."
'You’re the only person who made him real'
By January, Drallos had decided to start her nonprofit and organized thousands of photographers across the world whose mission it is to give parents something of their children they would always be able to keep.
“I get emails, maybe not weekly, but close to weekly from people who say they wished they had known about this service or people who lost their babies 40 years ago — they still think about that baby," Drallos said. "And everyone treats them like it was a miscarriage — it’s not a miscarriage."
Sometimes, Drallos is called out of bed at 3 a.m., rushing to the hospital where every minute counts, racing to beat the clock. Other times, the children are battling illnesses such as cancer or muscular dystrophy and Drallos has some time to arrange photography sessions.
Convincing the parents to make the appointment, however, and not miss out on their opportunity sometimes takes a gentle prodding.
"I'll be honest, it was really difficult to even think about doing it, because we knew those were going to be our last ones," Debbie Smith of Clawson, MI, said. "And actually Mackenzie passed away five days after the pictures were taken."
Smith was referred to Drallos in 2008 for her family portraits. Sensing the mother's hesitancy, Drallos knew Smith was upset and unsure about making the appointment, but encouraged her to come out so she wouldn't have any regrets.
With her 6-year-old daughter dying of cancer, that child's twin with disabilities and an upset older brother, Smith said that no one, including herself, was in the mood for family portraits that day- until they got there and met Drallos.
"She really is the most amazing person," Smith said. "She really made our family feel so comfortable. ...It's actually a very cherished memory for us. It was just a really, really special day."
With her daughter passing away just five days later, the portraits had to be overnighted for the visitation of Mackenzie's funeral, but Smith says that she is just so thankful for having Drallos convince her to do the session.
"It's probably one of the things that I treasure the most, those pictures are," Smith said. "I mean, they’re not sad pictures. They're absolutely beautiful pictures. Mackenzie looks great in them. You'd be shocked that she passed away five days later."
Doing the work for her charity is never about her, according to Drallos who also runs her own photography studio, Footprints Photography, but about the families and the children who need her — sometimes at a moment's notice.
“This one little boy I went to photograph, his Dad didn’t even come. … Nobody came,” she said. “I went there and I took his picture and the mom was like, you’re the only person who made him real.”