by David LaBelle

That God cares deeply about all life is evident.



It is also evident that He has put into the hearts of individuals to do different things and dream different dreams.

While some labor tirelessly to find cures for diseases, others are preoccupied with discovering ways to better grow food and feed the world.

And then there are those who seem blessed with hearts of compassion for animals, all animals. My brother Steven is like this, so also is my youngest son Henry. And no canine ever enjoyed more love and respect than those blessed to be cared for in the homes of my dear friends Penny Harvey and Greg Cooper.

During this coming year, I intend to introduce you to a few dedicated people who sacrifice much to preserve life and offer dignity to creatures large and small. They’ve made caregiving for our hairy, furry, feathered and finned friends a life mission and purpose.

These caring souls feel a charge, a responsibility, to guard and protect those animals unable to care for or protect themselves, especially victims of men’s reckless intervention or greedy poaching. Some even risk their lives to defend God’s creatures. In oceans, barren backcountry, dense forests, or in populated neighborhoods, most of these dedicated humans work quietly, out of the spotlight.

Connie Michaels will lead the way for this compassionate group.



Michaels is a park naturalist who has worked primarily at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio since 1989, when she began as a volunteer. For the past quarter century Michaels has cared for injured or relocated creatures and educated the public about turtles, snakes, toads, mice, fish or any other small creature that finds its way to her. But of all the animals residing at Quail Hollow, her greatest love is for the birds of prey, otherwise known as raptors.

In a sense, the birds are like children the unmarried Michaels never had. She has known them that long.

Like any good parent, Michaels knows each bird’s personality and habits.   She grows concerned when their behavior changes or if they don’t eat.   She worries about their health and finding and maintaining food sources that provide them with enough nutrition. She monitors and keeps detailed records on each animal.

Though she is paid only seasonally, Michaels cares for the animals at Quail Hollow daily and organizes an army of volunteers year-round.

“When I first started as the seasonal naturalist there was a full time naturalist who had the responsibility of overseeing the care of the birds,” offers Michaels. “The steady reduction of park personnel caused the elimination of that job as well as many other positions at the park leaving only a seasonal staff.  Animals however are still there requiring year round care and while they are attended to by a dedicated staff of volunteers, someone has to make sure there is adequate food and supplies, that they are eating as they should, and if they are in need of veterinary care.  I have hope that this will soon change.”

Michaels, who does other volunteer work at the park besides animal care, says she probably “devotes about 8 to 12 hours a week just to the care of the birds.”

“Fortunately, I do not have to pay out much of my own money,” adds Michaels. “The Quail Hollow Volunteer Association has established an account for the care of the raptors and the other animals at the nature center.  Each year they budget a certain amount of money and along with this I receive donations from some of the organizations I present programs to.”

Michaels, who has two dogs and two cats at home, says her relationship with the birds is different.   “Dogs and cats have learned to interact with us and respond to our care and affection. That is why we call them domesticated,” insists Michaels.

“I have grown close to the birds emotionally, but as they are still wild animals, I don’t expect them to want to be close to me. They will take food from me because they can’t hunt for themselves and perch on my arm only because they have been trained to do so, not because they have a desire to be near me.”

That said, Michaels has known Skye and R.T., two red-tailed hawks, Chopper, a Bard owl, a peregrine hawk named Fury, and her personal favorite, Blink, a six-inch-tall eastern screech owl, for years. She’s known RT since 1998, Skye since 2000, Fury since 2002, Blink since 2008 and Chopper since 2010. They have traveled many miles together performing educational sessions for school children and adults.

Though she is reluctant to admit, little Blink, who she has known the past seven years, is her favorite.

“He’s just such a personality and such a favorite of everybody,” offers Michaels.

True indeed. Even my wife said, “Blink is the only owl I have ever wanted to hug.”

It’s been a rough and bitter winter for Michaels.   First, Blink, the popular little owl with so much “personality,” disappeared in late fall.   Sure her feathered friend had been stolen, Michaels took Blink’s disappearance especially hard.


Flyers with the little owl’s picture were posted about town and online. There was even a reward offered for the return of the tiny raptor.

Michaels placed a small wooden transport/carrier box outside the compound with a note attached asking the small owl with the big voice be placed inside.

A cold hope

A cold hope

With Blink’s fading picture attached, the box sat silently through fall and a bitter, snowy winter, as if holding vigil for her feathered friend. The box still sits empty at the gate of the sanctuary, an emblem of hope against hope somebody will return the six-inch-tall eastern screech owl.

Connie Michaels is heartbroken over Blink's disappearance. She believes someone broke in and took the popular little owl.

Connie Michaels is heartbroken over Blink’s disappearance. She believes someone broke in and took the popular little owl.

And then, amidst the icy gray of winter, Fury, the feisty falcon who Michaels had known for at least 8 years, died, apparently of old age.

Added to these losses, Michaels’ 94 year-old-mother died in January.

As a naturalist, Michaels is also a realist and understands biology. Animals and people die.   Death is very much a part of life in her world.

“I will continue to supervise their care until someone else becomes available to step in and take responsibility for them,” says Michaels, who turned 70 last October.

“At the present time, I am the only employee at the park who has the experience and knowledge to do so. It concerns me that if I should become unable to do this, there is not anyone at this time to take it over.  Not that there aren’t potential candidates, but there needs to be someone hired full time. “

“It’s a long-term commitment,” she insists. “You get very, very much attached.”

“I love them and I can’t just walk away and leave them, not knowing whether or not they are being cared for.”

With Chopper

With Chopper

I know the feeling.

After five years guiding and strengthening a photojournalism program at Kent State, and shepherding many young lives, I, too, am having a hard time letting go.

But as it will be for Michaels and anybody who gives of their heart beyond a paycheck, the time comes when we must trust others will continue to water the seeds we have planted.

In the end, all we can hope for is that those who take the reigns will care as much as we have.

In This Face

The human face is a vessel capable of carrying the weight of a thousand experiences, and a myriad of subtle, even contradictory, emotions even the best poets would be hard-pressed to describe.

When we study another’s face, search another’s eyes, each of us sees something different, maybe even a reflection of ourselves.

I am not a photographer who seeks peak action or overt emotion. I am drawn to the quieter, more complex expressions.

Recently, my family and I listened to a young man named Bol Aweng tell the story of being separated from his family and fleeing his village in Southern Sudan while under attack by government troops. Aweng was just six-years-old when he ran for his life and began a trek to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. He spent 14 years in various refugee camps before arriving in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and said “it was the first time he felt he had an identity.”

Bol Aweng

Bol Aweng

Now living in Ohio, Bol Aweng is one of the 35,000 Lost Boys of Sudan.

I watched the kind face and contagious smile and shot about 30 frames during the hour-long presentation, watching intently for one frame, one expression, that might summarize what my ears and my heart were hearing. But nothing I saw through the viewfinder matched what I heard in his voice. And then, for a half-second, it was as if a veil covering the past was lifted, and an expression as deep and complex as any I had ever seen emerged.

Hidden beneath the warm smile, I saw a shadow of the frightened six-year-old separated from his family by war. I imagined the cruel memories Aweng must have of the 18,000 countrymen who were slaughtered, starved to death, or killed and eaten by lions and other wild animals while walking 1500 miles in search of food and safety. I saw a young man living in refugee camps for more than a decade, wondering if his parents and siblings were dead or alive; a family he would eventually see again 24 years later.

In this proud face I also saw faith in the God who led him to America.


“I started feeling that God is here and if there is something bigger, then I need God to be the one to help me in that,” Bol said of his time in the refugee camps.

“I was so excited when I received the letter,” remembers Bol. Finally, after a long wait, he was going to escape the horrors of war and finally realize his dream to come to the United States, “a safe place.”

His face held the story of finally escaping the horrors of war and realizing his dream to come to America, only to be delayed en route to New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bol said he questioned himself, “Is it me following war, or war following me?”

But also in this wise face I saw an educated man, a soul tempered by gratitude and filled with guarded hope for peace and the future of his countrymen, especially the mothers and children. His eyes spoke of quiet strength, purpose and a steel resolve to help his family, bring healthcare to his people and continue rebuilding the village of his childhood in South Sudan.

I saw a talented artist, able to communicate in colorful paintings the scenes from his incredible journey.

Above all, in this amazing face, I saw an incredible tapestry of sadness, joy and hope woven so tightly together they are inseparable.

To learn more about this amazing soul, please see the following links.

Bol Aweng’s Story

The Lost Boys of Sudan

Paths that cross

By David LaBelle

There are people we meet, strangers at first, whose eyes and faces feel as familiar as family. We look at them curiously, trying not to stare, asking ourselves if we know them or have met them somewhere. We struggle for context, to place them on our life path, as if they are ghosts from another time, another dimension.

Six or seven years ago, I met someone who felt like a soul I had known for centuries.

Sarah was living on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and her husband of 60 years had died a few years earlier. I was writing about women who had lived in the shadows of their famous husbands, yet accomplished so much with their own quiet lives.  Sarah and I hit it off immediately. There was something in her dark, dancing eyes that felt so familiar, as if we had known each other for decades.


Sarah 2010

I would stop by and visit her periodically, watch a little football (she loves watching sports, especially football). Sometimes we would just sit and talk about the lives we had lived. The “Cotton Queen,” artist, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had spent most of her eight decades in Tennessee, while I grew up in California. She enjoyed hearing the stories of my life, which were so different from hers. Even after my family and I moved away from Lookout Mountain, I would often stop and see Sarah whenever we came back to the mountain to visit.

Last year, during a Thanksgiving visit with my wife’s family, I stopped by to see Sarah. Her health had declined and she was now bedridden with around-the-clock care.

“Sarah, do you remember me?” I asked, leaning over close to her.

Her eyes twinkled and she said, “I can’t believe it’s you.” She reached up and touched my face.

It was late afternoon and she was tired. I told her I would come by and visit again the next day, a little earlier.

But the next day, when I stopped to say goodbye, a different caregiver than the pair I met the day before would not let me in. I explained I had written about Sarah and that we were friends. When the caregiver wouldn’t budge, I asked her to talk to Sarah’s family and ask if I could see Sarah again. I would come by again tomorrow, my last day on the mountain before returning to Ohio.

But when I arrived the following day, the caregiver said the family had denied my request, “for fear of upsetting Sarah.”   She said the family knew who I was because of the article I had written about Sarah a few years earlier, but “they did not know me.”

And that was true.

During my family’s six months on Lookout Mountain and my visits to Sarah’s house, I had never met any of her children or family members. Since Sarah was independent and still driving at that time, this wasn’t unusual.


Clearly disappointed at not being able to say goodbye to my ailing friend, my wife explained to me that “outsiders” just dropping by to see people, as was my custom, was not proper etiquette in this privileged mountaintop community. People called first and scheduled visits, she assured, especially the long-time residents like Sarah’s family.

On the way home to Ohio I thought about Sarah, who as a child held her father’s hand, less than fifty yards from the bed she now occupies, and watched in wonder as Charles Lindberg flew past her Lookout Mountain, Tennessee backyard.

I thought how quickly lives change and suddenly someone who is used to managing other people’s lives loses their independence and others make decisions for them.

And it struck me how as adults we often have friends our children or family members do not know.

I understand the responsibility of family members, especially children to protect aging parents.

But I also hope if I lose my ability to care for myself, my family will allow me to make as many decisions as possible, including who I can see when I am in my final days.

Though we were not “close” friends as one who knows another for a lifetime, I am thankful Sarah and I crossed paths in this life, if only briefly.

I wish I could have seen her once more just to say goodbye.

Bridges to History

I am not a celebrity photographer, nor have I ever aspired to be.

For most of my life, I have chosen to tell the stories of those who live in the shadows of life, usually clothed in struggle and far removed from the spotlight of fame. I do so in part because it is a familiar world from where I came.

But as a photojournalist, I have met a lot of famous people – presidents, musicians, actors, activists, artists and athletes – celebrities from all walks of life. And lately, I’ve been thinking about some “famous” people I would like to have met –souls walking this earth the same time as me – people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, baseball heroes Roger Maris and Jackie Robinson, Ansel Adams, C.S. Lewis, Norman Rockwell, John Steinbeck and John Candy to name a few.

And then I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Atlanta, Georgia, 1986


Like so many other historical figures I wish I could have met and didn’t, I have often wondered how different the civil rights leader was from the glamorized and memorialized portrait time often paints.

But I have met people who knew him.

I‘ve met Andy Young, Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King. I have even had the privilege of joining them on a short and very emotional bus ride during our country’s first annual holiday recognition of Martin Luther King Day in downtown in Atlanta 30 years ago.

And an Alabama friend, and fellow photojournalist, the late Charles Moore, documented many of the civil rights demonstrations. He captured many of the now iconic images of people being sprayed with water hoses and attacked by police with clubs and dogs. He often talked about hearing King speak the first time, and how moved he was by the young preacher’s charisma and power to engage an audience. Moore was also impressed with King’s calm demeanor in the face of such hatred and danger.

Now, in light of the recent release of the movie Selma, I asked another friend, 78-year-old Clarence Bozeman, retired teacher, high school principal and Alabama native, his thoughts after seeing the film. After all, Bozeman was King’s personal weekend driver for two years in Montgomery.

Boaeman BW 2014

Clarence Bozeman, King’s driver


As a 21-year-old Alabama State University college student, Bozeman played a cameo role in our nation’s history. Beginning in 1958, Bozeman drove King’s 1954 Pontiac, shuttling King, his wife Coretta, and their two children from home to church, school, or wherever else they needed to go.  The young preacher was not yet famous.

Five years later, after the March on Washington and the “I have a dream speech,” King was a household name…and a target.

“The movie brought back a lot of memories of the beatings and what I have seen,” Bozeman said. “And the dialogue triggered a lot of thoughts in terms of trying to get that march together.”

Bozeman said, “From a historical standpoint, it was relatively accurate, but I felt a lot of key layers were ignored. I thought more people ought to be included in his cadre.”

“I was wondering about the role of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, his closest confidant, his closet friend. They were inseparable. They gave very, very, very, minimum, little information about him.”

Bozeman said Abernathy was in the motel room when King was shot. He was also in the room when King died at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Bozeman remembers Dr. King as “a calm and focused man,” who he never saw lose his temper. And he was “a modest man” who rode in the front seat of his car while Bozeman was driving lest he appeared as though he was being chauffeured.

“When he was with me, he was just about like he was in the movie, always focused. We did short talk, conversation. But it was never any laughing out loud and kneeling over in laughter, joking; we didn’t do that,” remembers Bozeman. “ I didn’t see that with him. Other people have talked about how he had pillow fights and acted silly, but I never saw that side of him.”

And Bozeman also remembers the last time he saw King, shook his hand and was invited to a private dinner with civil rights activists and lawyers. It was in Cleveland in 1967, when King spoke at a hotel downtown.

Within a year, Bozeman’s former boss was dead, assassinated in Memphis.

Pensive BW

Bozeman remembers the day when his former boss was shot and killed


Bozeman still gets teary-eyed remembering the day he heard the news Dr. King had been killed.   He was driving home from teaching at Empire Junior High School Thursday afternoon when the news came over his car radio. “I pulled over to the side of the road and wept uncontrollably,” he remembers.

“He was a caring man always concerned about the downtrodden,” Bozeman remembers. And now looking back, Bozeman believes Dr. King was “a prophet,” God-sent for a special mission.

I find it interesting how history remembers famous people. Often, our mainstream image is far removed from the reality of the person. But with two degrees of separation from Dr. Martin Luther King, I have formed my own picture of the man, though admittedly it is faint and incomplete.

He was clearly a man with a mission, and a figure for a time and a movement. Clearly a bright mind, talented orator and influential leader; he was also a man cursed with the same weaknesses, fears and even guilt, all humans suffer.

I wish I could have met him and talked with him privately.

And if I knew then what know now, I hope I would have had the courage to stand up to the injustice and maybe even march with King and so many others who risked their lives for what they believed was right.


Before the wheelchairs

Before the wheelchairs

Can you imagine?

I hear this often from those who spend time with Dan and Dustin Ripley.

2. angels


Truly, I can’t imagine possessing a healthy, functioning mind, while being imprisoned in a deteriorating body.

I have tried to imagine, but I cannot. Not fully.

Even their father, Dale, says he can’t imagine how they do it; how they remain so happy and positive.

Dan, 29, and his brother Dustin, 27, have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a crippling disease that devours their muscles.

Both are intelligent young men, with active minds trapped in helpless bodies.

4. Danny

3. Dustin Above: Danny, Below: Dustin


The brothers graduated from Tallmadge High School with honors, despite confinement to wheelchairs and ventilators. Dustin even worked delivering mail on Kent State’s campus until the disease eventually stole his motor skills.

Dan is likely a savant. With a computer-like memory, able to recall sports facts with lightening speed, he can answer just about any obscure stat about a sporting contest. If he could speak clearly, he could have his own sports radio show; he is that knowledgeable. (By the way, he predicted, before their win over Detroit, the Dallas Cowboys would compete in the Super Bowl. He is picking the big game to be Denver against Dallas.)

A Normal Beginning

Their lives began like a lot of other boys’ – going to school, playing baseball, and going to the zoo.

But when Danny was about 5 years old, the muscle-stealing disease started attacking his body, and he couldn’t keep up with the other kids. By the age of 8, the joyful red-head was sentenced to a wheelchair, no longer able to run and jump. Or even walk.

When Debbie was pregnant with Dustin, the family found some comfort in knowing their second child had escaped the terrible disease. Tests early in the pregnancy indicated he would escape the hereditary disease, which claimed the life of Debbie’s brother, Michael, at the young age of 19.

Then came the day when someone noticed the little boy peculiarly climbing the stairs. Dustin would step up with one foot and follow with the next, one stair at a time.

More tests were done. The news that followed devastated the family.

By the age of 4, Dustin was showing signs of the dreaded disease, and soon the third-grader was also in a wheelchair.

Now, the family looks at their unique situation as a blessing because although Danny and Dustin have the disease, they also have each other.

Debbie covers Dustin as the family prepares to go to  a movie.

Debbie covers Dustin as the family prepares to go to a movie.

Seldom Apart

Whether in their bedroom — lying less than six feet from each other — or in the open family room, the brothers are almost never apart.

Unable to even move their heads, each stare up at the ceiling or at a television screen – connected to life by a groaning, wheezing machine that breathes for them. Like newborn babies, they are completely dependent on their parents and their nurses.

They have a lot of time to think. And talk to each other. Most of the time without seeing the other’s face.

It’s difficult for them to speak, and even more difficult for other people to understand them.

But they understand each other when those around them cannot.

“Dan doesn’t really have to speak,” Dale says. “Dustin understands him.”

But then both have hearing as acute as jackals.

Loading up

Loading up

Going to the movies

Going to the movies

Nurse Erin feeds Dustin popcorn

Nurse Erin feeds Dustin popcorn

Squabbles and Bickering

As brothers do, Dan and Dustin have their disagreements, and bickering squabbles erupt. Both boys admit.

“Usually it’s over what we want to watch,” offers Dustin.

“I watch the Today Show; I want to know what’s going on,” he explains. He sighs and rolls his eyes. “I like sports, but not as much as Dan does!”

Then there are times when Dan wants to sleep, but his anxious little brother won’t quit gabbing. Moods change.

Though the brothers get upset with each other, they love each completely. They’re close in ways most of us can’t begin to comprehend.

“They love the hell out of each other,” assures Muhammad Davis, a 31-year-old LPN and one of the boy’s weekend caregivers.

“You could tell that they are extremely close, by just spending a day with them,” adds Davis, only two years older than Dan. “They’ve known each other all their life, and that’s all they have is each other. They’re almost like a puzzle piece. You know if one is missing, the puzzle isn’t complete. They’re so connected. You know, they argue like any other brothers. But man, they really do love each other.”

Alone, Together with Fears

Often alone in the darkness of their bedroom, they talk about their fears.

Dustin is a “worrier,” who worries about “everything.” He fears spiders will climb on him and said he’s had nightmares about it.

Side by side in their bedroom

Side by side in their bedroom

I try to imagine being unable to use my hands, more helpless than a newborn, and having a spider crawl on me. Suddenly, I appreciate his fear, his helplessness, his vulnerability.

But his biggest fear is that something will happen to his parents, to Dan, or his nurses.

Both Have Dreams

Though both boys hope for a cure that will give them back their legs, they have other goals.

Dustin, clearly the more romantic brother, dreams of getting married. He said he is looking for a woman who is “pretty and fun, and doesn’t care what color hair she has.” Then he adds one more quality: “And smart.”

“Do you believe you will ever walk again?” I ask Dustin.

He ponders the sobering question.

“Not until the Lord comes back,” he gurgled. “Then I will walk again.”

I turn to Dan and ask about his dreams.

“I want to be a better person, and not be selfish,” he says.

He laboriously tries to explain he feels that sometimes he isn’t kind to his brother or his parents.

And sometimes he “gets upset and uses bad words,” adds Dustin.


“I slept well,” Dan advises on this morning.

Covered in blankets, waiting to be suctioned and have their bodies washed, the boys are awake. The wheezing hum of ventilators and beeping monitors are soon joined by the sound of voices on the television.

Much of their lives are spent this way – side by side, in beds or wheelchairs, staring at the ceiling or at a television screen, with the constant humming, wheezing and beeping of machines. Their bedroom feels like a science lab.

“Good morning, Dave,” pipes Dustin, a mask over his eyes and a little stuffed dog perched on his head, as it always is when he sleeps at night.

Mutual Admiration

When I asked Dustin whom he admired most, he didn’t hesitate and answered, “My brother, Dan.”

Big brother Dan, only about one-and-a-half years Dustin’s senior, hears the compliment and squawks something from his wheelchair I cannot understand. Like Dustin, Danny cannot turn his head or move his hands or feet. Clearly moved by his little brother’s words, Dan wants to assure me how much he admires Dustin.

Having a younger brother like Dustin “means everything,” I finally understand him to say. “He makes me laugh, he is fun to be with.”

“We are pretty close because we are here all the time together,” Dustin adds, the ultimate understatement.

Though bound by space, a disease, and a love for Ohio sports teams – especially the Buckeyes, Indians and Cavaliers – the boys (actually, young men) are as different as brothers often are.

Dan’s favorite color is red. Dustin loves yellow.

Dan’s favorite meal is roast beef. Dustin loves spaghetti, with or without meatballs.

Dan appears calmer, more accepting of his place in life. Dustin is anxious and filled with worries.

Everything is Difficult

Occasionally the family goes to a movie (accompanied by a nurse), which is a daunting task requiring physical strength and great patience. Nothing about this family’s life is easy.

Added to the stress of keeping an important routine – picking up medicine and supplies, doctor visits and such – is the increasing financial pressure brought on by the many expenses Medicaid and other insurances do not cover.

Debbie and Dale

Tired parents

Dale and Debbie admit they never really sleep deeply, especially during those late hours when no nurse is on duty.

They are always alert for the beeping warning that something is wrong. They fear if they don’t respond immediately, one of their children could die in minutes without attention.


“They are so fortunate that they have each other,” insists caregiver Davis. “There are some patients out there who are like them, but they don’t have anybody else. So they always have each other, man. That’s very positive, they are very fortunate to have each other.”

Davis shakes his head and grins.

“You know, they’re amazing. To be able to smile and enjoy life, still even under the conditions they are in?   I admire people like that.”

“That’s why I try not to complain, and when I do complain, I ask God to forgive me.”

Danny on Christmas Eve

Danny on Christmas Eve

“I mean these guys can’t even do anything, can’t even breathe on their own. That’s why I thank God, after I sneeze. Thank you, God, for giving me my breath back.”

“I just can’t imagine,” he says walking back to their bedroom to finish getting the boys prepared for the day.

“I just can’t imagine.”

To make a donation to the Ripley family, click here.

Second Chances

For my “Christmas” post, I have chosen to share a self-portrait, of sorts.

The ones of us who gather stories of others, watching closely for half-second glimpses of authenticity, learn to recognize the moment a person briefly drops their guard and opens the window to their deep, complicated emotions. As storytellers, these are the treasures for which we hunger, the fleeting glimpses that reveal internal battles and victories.

Often times, it is in these passing moments we see our own complex selves as shadows in the mirror of our subjects.

I do not believe a photograph can capture a person’s essence as some claim. As human beings, our invisible spirits are far too complex to be captured or contained in a single photograph. It isn’t that the emotion projected is not authentic; I believe it is. For as the late Richard Avedon said, “You can’t evoke an emotion from a person that is not in them.” But a single photograph, a fraction of a life, can easily be taken out of context when standing alone to represent a person.

I do believe there are magical times when a photograph can record a shadow of a person’s spirit that represents their being, their personality, however incomplete.

I experienced one of those beautiful moments last week when I met a man named Alan in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He opened a window, briefly allowing me a fleeting glimpse of the struggle and joy in his weathered soul.

In a sense, the portrait of Alan is a self-portrait, as are many photographs I make of others struggling through this life. If I set out to make a self-portrait that portrayed how I felt and saw myself, as I often ask my students to do, it would look like this.
Truth is, many of us see and photograph ourselves – fears and dreams and failures – in the faces of others.


Alan is 54.

He said he is a recovering drug addict.

“I lost my mom in 2004 and when she died I give up. I hated the world. I hated people. I even hated myself,” he admitted to me.

“I started doing cocaine. I was on drugs, bad. They got me for trafficking coke in 2010 and I done 10 years in prison,” he continued.

“But it’s all behind me now,” he said. “I am doin’ good. Thanks to God, He’s keeping me clean. Been clean now, going on 8 years. No drugs. I’ve got the Lord.”

Then he added, “I got saved in jail. I go to church; I am a Christian. I love the Lord.   If it wasn’t for God I wouldn’t be right here right now,” he assured.

Now, instead of taking, Alan is giving. He led me inside his home to show me two wooden toys, works in progress for local children.   “I’m making this little house for a seven-year-old girl for Christmas.   It make me feel good to make things for people.”

Then he pointed to a toy truck. “And she’s got her a brother, he’s an eight year-old, and he said, ‘Alan, will you make me a truck,’ so I made him this truck and I am going to give that to him for Christmas.”

I know Alan’s road will not be easy; most life roads are not.

But I thank him for my Christmas gift and pray God will bless him on his new journey.

The Mail Lady

Life purpose comes in different packages.

Some goals are ambitious, requiring throngs of supporters and boatloads of money to achieve.

Others are simple.

But even the simplest of lives can be complicated.

Last week, while helping with a photo workshop in Kentucky, I met sixty-one-year- old Adrena Henry. Standing near a trio of mailboxes on a rural highway near tiny Plumville, Kentucky, the little woman was playing an electronic handheld poker game. At first glance, I thought she was an attendant for a deer check station. Or maybe she was helping campaign for an upcoming election?

I pulled over and found neither to be true.

Plumville, KY 2104© Photos by David LaBelle

Henry was waiting for the mail; a routine she said began in 1982.

I was sure I misunderstood her. Did she really say she had been greeting the mailman for 32 years?   “Yes, that is right,” she said, since 1982.”

It never ceases to amaze me how humans can find purpose and meaning in the simplest of acts.

I had to know more.

Henry said six days a week she makes the 200-yard walk from her single trailer to meet the mailman. Sometimes she waits for hours, playing her game and waving at passing trucks.

Plumville, KY 2104© Photos by David LaBelle

Adena Henry

Once the mailman arrives, he hands her a stack of mail and Henry will sort and place her family’s mail in a homemade carrier, then put the rest in the other boxes. Henry, who is deceptively bright, quietly admits she can’t read, but she is able to write her name and recognize the names on the envelopes.

Why, after so many years, does she continue this unique mission?

Henry said it was something she began after marrying her husband, Don, right after the two moved in with her father-in-law, 32 years ago.

“It gets me out of the house,” Henry says simply.   “I am happy doing it, it brings me peace.”

Her childlike eyes twinkle but I sense there is a more to the story.

I asked her how many mail days she had missed since she began in 1982.

“I don’t know, maybe four or five?” She answered.

Ron Mason, who works across the highway at Phil Days Body Shop, and has known Henry for the 20 years, says, “I don’t know, that may be right,” It doesn’t matter the weather – rain or snow – she is always out there.”

Mason added, “I don’t know her name, we just know her as the “mail lady. She even has a badge with her picture that says mail lady.”

On this morning, Henry stood waiting at least two hours, a handmade, charcoal-colored mail bag over one shoulder, playing the game and occasionally looking up and waving at passing trucks.

Along with her “mail lady pin,” Henry proudly adorns her vest with stickers others have given her: a Junior Deputy Sheriff’s sticker from Mason County Sheriffs office and one from the Northern Kentucky EMS Paramedics.

While Henry watches for the mailman, there are those watching out for her.

Mason, county commissioner, Phil Day and Warren Kendall, who Henry calls “Cue ball,” because of his balding head, keep an eye out for Henry.   Somebody stops near her and one or all of them cross the highway to make sure she’s not in danger.

Plumville, KY 2104© Photos by David LaBelle

Watchdogs. Phil Day, Warren Kendall and Ron Mason.

Plumville, KY 2104© Photos by David LaBelle “I bought her that vest, afraid she’d get hit,” Mason said. “She wears it every time she is out here now. We were afraid she might get hit that close to the road.”

They also save aluminum cans for her.

With both Henry and her deaf husband receiving modest social security checks, recycling cans helps make Don’s car payment and hopefully save enough to have her electricity turned back on,” Henry shares.

Plumville, KY 2104© Photos by David LaBelle

She has been without electricity in her single trailer for the past 8 months, and says she has to come up with $180.00 before she can have it turned back on. With winter coming, she is concerned.

But even the most simple of lives can be complicated.

Henry says she “loves her husband more than anyone or anything in the world,” but they sleep in different structures, in different beds.

It’s complicated.

“I would love to live in the same house with him but living with my father-in-law is too stressful,” Henry insists.

And then there are her four little dogs.

She says she is “welcome in the house, but her dogs are not.”

So she chooses to live and sleep in the trailer a few hundred feet from her father-in-law’s house, visiting three times daily to eat, shower, socialize and spend time with her disabled husband in her father-in-law’s house.”

Choosing peace over comfort, she snuggles with her four dogs and plays her Poker game by flashlight at night.

Plumville, KY 2104© Photos by David LaBelle

A Compulsion To Comfort

Photo by Jeff Marshall

Photograph by Jeff Marshall

by David LaBelle

I noticed her sitting alone on a piece of driftwood under a tree, looking out over the Columbia River. Her body language said she was wrestling with something deep, so I sat down beside her, told her my name and said I could tell she had a lot on her heart.

It was just after sunrise and my wife, Erin, and I were leading an early morning class of writers with cameras.

She said her name was Jeanette and shared that she came to this spot daily to ponder life and sort things out.

“Interesting how we are drawn to water,” I suggested,” how comforting and healing it can be.”

She agreed.

She told me this was a special place where in the past, she and her child shared many truthful conversations.

We talked less than five minutes, and when her tears began, I put my arm around her.

I don’t know the source or the depth of her pain, only that she was hurting.

I scribbled my contact info on a card.

Whenever I travel, I engage people I wish I had more time to know. In some instances these brief encounters lead to life-long friendships. But most times, they are just rich, fleeting moments that leave me hungry to know more about a stranger.

That morning was one of those times.



Life is hard, even when it’s not.

I say this a lot because I feel it daily, and often wish I had arms wide enough to reach around every suffering soul in the world. My wife describes it as having a compulsion to comfort and perhaps this is true.

I seldom have answers to the sadness of life, but I find peace in knowing the One who does.

I went back to the riverside spot at daybreak on my last morning in Oregon, hoping to find her again. But it was not to be, so I left a Love Rock on the piece of driftwood that served as her bench and hoped it might offer encouragement.

Miss Jeanette, if you see this, I would love to be your friend.

Life Companions

Two days after his 19th birthday, Rob Carwile leaned over his dying brother, put his own mouth on his brother’s, and breathed life into the motionless body.

A few minutes later, a woman from the fire department, en route from another accident, stopped on the highway, called for help, then aided in the resuscitation.

Joe Carwile (Joey, as we called him during his years at Western Kentucky University) is five and a half years older than Rob. Growing up together in Hardinsburg, Kentucky, it was evident the boys had different talents and different dreams.

“We were different,” says Rob. “He went to college, I didn’t. I always turned wrenches. I’ve always been a mechanic, and he’s always, you know, loved photography – for years, all the way back in high school.”

Rob Carwile, left, with older brother Joe

Rob Carwile, left, with older brother Joe

I have never met Rob Carwile; I have spoken to him only once on the phone. But I’ve known Joey for a quarter of a century. I was his teacher for Basic Photography.

A tall, gangly, fun loving, “Opie Taylor-like” country boy, Joey loved photography and planned on being a photojournalist the rest of his life. He especially liked shooting sports and news, anything active. After completing three photography internships for newspapers in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, he graduated from Western Kentucky with a photojournalism degree and moved to Hartford, Connecticut to free-lance for Courant. Joey seemed to have everything a country boy could want – a pickup truck, a steady girlfriend and a great job doing what he loved most – taking pictures for a newspaper.

But real life dreams can change as quickly as those in our sleep.

During a break from work, Joey drove home – one thousand miles – for his little brother’s 19th birthday. Two days later, on September 14th, 1994, the brothers decided to take a drive to buy a car stereo for Joe’s pickup. Neither could have known how quickly, how drastically, their lives would change in the next 30 minutes.

The accident

“I’ll never forget, I was following the dude and he was in a van,” Rob said, remembering the accident that happened 20 years ago this week.

“He had his signal on for a long time. He would slow down, then he’d take back off, so I started to keep a little bit of distance. Then we come up on an intersection, and he went to turn off the right hand side of the road, and I’d let off the gas and was slowing down, coming up on him.”

Without notice, the van suddenly made a U-turn in the intersection and t-boned Rob’s truck.

“Joey was siting there, looking at CDs in a case in the floorboard of my truck.   And he looked up, and I’ll never forget it, he goes, ‘No!’”

“The guy hit us right in the front driver post of the pickup on Joey’s side. We lost control and started barrel rolling. We flipped almost four times.”

As Rob tells the story, reliving that day, his voice begins cracking, and I can hear him fighting tears.

“I stayed in the vehicle; he got thrown out. I felt his feet hit me in the head when he got ejected.”

“The truck was lying on the driver’s side when it stopped. And I crawled out of it and I looked but I didn’t see him. I walked around to the other side of the pickup and I seen him lying there. My first thought was he’s knocked out. You know, he’s going to be fine, he’ll get up. We’ll get our stuff and get out of here.

“I went to grab him and he was stiff as board.   I checked for his breathing and he was barely getting air.”

“Wow, makes my eyes water,” Rob said, choking with the memory. “Whew, you caught me off guard.”

“I thought he was dead.” He could barely get the words out.

“He’s my only brother.” 

Invisible wounds

While most of Joey’s injuries were to his body, his brother Rob’s wounds were invisible, emotional.   He walked away from the accident with a few cuts and bruises on the outside, but inside, he was deeply wounded.

Though he was not at fault for the accident, he struggled with the nagging guilt of not being able to avoid it.

“It’s all you think of when you go to bed or get up,” Rob said. “No matter who you got with you, when you are driving anything, you take that responsibility of being in control. And you soon realize you are not in control. You only control what you can do, but not what happens, not what everything else is going to throw at you.”

“He loved being able to go out and get pictures and write a little bit about it. He was so happy when he went to Flint, Michigan, and he was at Hartford. It was him doing it! I could tell he had a sense of pride. When you can take nothing and make something from it…”

His voice cracked.

“Seems like his dream got cut short.”

A long road to recovery

Joey was in a coma for 11 days. He spent a month in the Davis County hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation center in Durham, North Carolina, where for four painful months he struggled to walk and regain control of his arms, legs, hands and speech, and to learn new job skills.

His career as a newspaper photographer was over.

Hoping to lift his spirits, one of his therapists let Joey use her camera to shoot some pictures. But the experiment failed.

“The pictures were out of focus and poorly composed and the list goes on,“ Joe remembers.   It was one of the many low points he would endure the next two decades. He thought to himself, “Who is going to hire a photographer that can’t even stand up?”

Meanwhile, back home his parents were getting divorced, his father blaming the breakup on the stress of the accident.

Joe said during his time in North Carolina, he plummeted to an “especially low point” and contemplated suicide more than once.

Unable to continue as a shooting photojournalist, Joe determined to become an “imager,” a technician that prepares other people’s pictures for publication. This allowed him to stay in the profession he loved. He worked for three years for the Tribune in South Bend, Indiana, as an image technician and then seven months for the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky. But as he openly admits, the workflow was too fast and he couldn’t keep up.

It’s been a long and often lonely road to recovery for Joe, littered with many days of frustration and self-doubt.   But as difficult as it has been, he has never put the camera away and has continued trying to find a way to make a living doing what he loves most: making pictures.

Two decades after the accident that almost ended his life – and years of rehabilitation and therapy – Joe says, optimistically, “I can walk now, I can run. I can drive. I can do whatever.”

“I have never met nobody as strong as what he is,” admires Rob, Joe’s greatest admirer. “He’ll get down and out for years, but he’s always striving to do better.”

He never quit photography

And however difficult, Joe never quit making pictures. “The camera helped me get back to some sense of normalcy,” he said.

Even while working at Wal-Mart for the past six years and holding a second job at a Lexington rehabilitation center as a “companion,” who helps other people recover, the camera has always remained in Joe’s life. He still dreams of the day he can make his living again with photography.

He continues trying to build a portrait business but admits it has been challenging.   He says, with no hint of jealously, “There are just so many other talented photographers in town.”

A new dream appears

And then, a couple of years ago, when it seemed photography would never again bring him the joy it once did, a new dream flew into his back yard. Literally.

Joe began photographing insects – bugs, beetles and butterflies.  He soon realized his back yard was a world he could manage, and photographing the tiny creatures brought him great joy.

“Before the accident, I would wake up with my camera and go to bed with my camera,” he said. “Now, I am not as mobile as I was before, so I have to take full advantage of shadows and light and the insects flying in the area. I can keep up with some of those. I photograph the things that come to me.”

He adds, “I feel at peace when I am out in nature. I focus on the smaller things most don’t pay any attention to, like an ant crawling on a leaf.”

Joe is especially fascinated with dragonflies. His photographs of the mysterious creatures, often seen as symbols of emotional and spiritual change, have become his signature. They are extremely symbolic of the change in his own metamorphosis.

Joe's smiling dragonfly

Joe’s smiling dragonfly

Finding hope and comfort

I asked Joe where he found comfort during the many dark and lonely days.

“Knowing that my brother was hurting. Anytime I got even a little better – the tiniest amount of improvement – that made me feel better,” Joe shared. “Anytime I get better, he gets better. Anything good happens to me, and Rob is on top of the world.”

He adds, “My brother is the world to me. He gave me rescue breath for his 19th birthday.”

Click here to see Joe Carwile’s Photography

Robin Williams and Betty Gold

By David LaBelle

Last week, Robin Williams broke the hearts of millions of adoring fans by taking his own life.   Witty and entertaining, on stage and in front of the camera, Williams eventually was unable to cope with his tortured private person and made a choice that stunned the world.

How could he do it?   Many people are wondering how someone who made so many laugh be so troubled? How could a man, who appeared to have everything, decide life was too difficult to continue?  

Because many of us watched him grow up from his early career as Mork on the television series Mork and Mindy, and then through the years in dozens of movies like Dead Poets Society, Patch Adams and Mrs.Doubtfire, each of us felt we knew him personally.  

Some expressed anger, feeling robbed of his comedic genius. (In a world so ravaged by war and hatred, we could sure use a good laugh.) Others felt betrayed, as if all those encouraging, positive characters he played were lies.  

I am not one of those people.

Born only five weeks before Williams, I have learned in 63 years to be gentle in my judgment of others, especially of public figures. Perhaps it’s because on my comparably tiny life stage, I have struggled with many of the same emotions, minus the drugs.   Like Williams, I have always felt a need to please others, to bring them joy, comfort and hope and to make them laugh, even when privately I was crying inside.

 The truth is that many of us are actors at one time or another. Sometimes it is only God who can see the depth of our pain, so well hidden by our efforts to comfort others.

Betty Gold

Betty Gold 2013 © Photo by David LaBelle

Gold speaking in Akron, 2013

Last month a different kind of celebrity, not likely on your radar unless you are interested in Holocaust studies, passed away somewhat suddenly.   Like the famous actor, Betty Gold had her audiences.   Always positive, friendly, smiling and encouraging, Gold worked tirelessly to promote Holocaust education. Even in her eighties, she continued answering requests to speak, and for many, she was the face of the Holocaust.   Even Steven Spielberg interviewed Gold for his IWitness Challenge archival project.

But like Robin Williams, the private person often suffered a tortured hell when she went home alone at night and battled her demons.

 As a young girl of eleven, she and fellow Polish Jews spent three years hiding first in a wall with sixteen others and then in the wilderness. Betty came of age as a woman, huddled in a dirt hole, forced to scavenge fields for food at night for the rest of those hiding.   She lost toes to frostbite and lived in constant fear of being killed by Nazi soldiers.   She even watched helplessly as her cousin smothered her own baby to stop the crying and therefore saved the rest of the group in hiding from discovery.

Out of the 5000 Jews from her town of Trochenbrod, Poland, 4200 were exterminated.

Yet as painful as that was, Gold said it was not as difficult as what she called her “Second Holocaust”, the deaths of two of her three sons. First Michael (named after her brother who died in the Holocaust) died from an illness and then Allan, who committed suicide in 2010.  

Betty Gold-July, 2011 ©Photos by Amy Gaskin

Betty at home with the heartache of Allan’s voice still on the answering machine.  Photo by Amy Gaskin.

I listened to Betty speak on several occasions and asked her to be part of a Kent State photojournalism project titled “Children of the Holocaust”. I didn’t really know her, anymore than I knew Robin Williams, but Amy Gaskin, one of my students who worked on the Children of the Holocaust project, did know her.  Gaskin also knew the demons Gold lived with daily.  

Gold embraced Gaskin like the daughter she never had, and the two stayed in touch through the years, often talking on the phone for hours each month. They had planned on meeting at the Cleveland airport last month during Gaskin’s trip from California to Ohio to see family. But stormy weather delayed Gold’s fight from Chicago (she had just spoken in Washington D.C.) and the friends were never to see each other again.   Betty died two weeks later.

“I feel like there’s two personalities,” Gold told Amy Gaskin (then a Kent State student) in a 2011 interview in her home. “My social personality, the social Betty Gold and the sad one. You know, when I’m home alone and so forth, it hurts a lot and it’s painful to know you lost two sons. It’s very, very difficult to live with and it doesn’t get easier. The harder it gets, the busier I get and try and cope with it “

Though it was often physically and emotionally draining, especially after losing two of her three sons, Gold continued telling her story over and again. She especially loved talking to children, hoping, believing her words would sink into their hearts and be instrumental in helping avoid similar atrocities.  

 Most who saw this tiny, happy, energetic, accomplished business woman, had no idea the of demons she lived with when she was alone, or the many tears that were spilled.

I read the book Night by Eli Weisel my senior year of high school. It was chilling then and is chilling still. I couldn’t fathom how humans could be so cruel to other humans.   Weisel’s graphic description of the forced marches, barefoot in the snow, and mass exterminations angered, frightened and confused me.   When I met Betty Gold and listened to her story, that horrific event moved closer, across the ocean to Ohio. It became personal.   How does one experience such brutality and witness such horror and live a “normal” life?

Betty Gold-July, 2011 ©Photos by Amy Gaskin

Betty looks out the window and at the phone in her bedroom. Betty is believed to be the last survivor from her village, which was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. She describes another Holocaust since the recent tragic deaths of her sons Michael and Alan. Michael died of sudden illness, and Alan took his own life, despite Betty’s many attempts to get help for him. On the telephone answering machine by the window is his goodbye message to her, which she plays from time to time. Betty says that when she sees clouds out her window she “sees my boys like angels trying to talk to me.” © Photo by Amy Gaskin

Even in their tangled forests of pain, both Williams and Gold put on a good public face. They were smiling cheerleaders who made us laugh and filled our hearts with humor and hope.  

In a sad twist of irony, Gold was denied the one thing she requested at her death: to be cremated and have her ashes returned home to Trochenbrod with those murdered in 1942.   She repeated this request often, especially to Amy Gaskin.

Her lone surviving son made a different choice.

Against her wishes, Betty was buried July 27 in Beachwood, Ohio.

Watching Betty and Amy connect at a time each seemed to need to each other’s strength and comfort most, reminded me of the beauty and power of human connection born out of documentary storytelling.

On one occasion, Betty told Amy, “I want to thank you very, very much because what youʼre doing does make a difference and thatʼs what Iʼm here for… And what youʼre doing is great because people are going to learn from it and you will teach them and for that we thank you.  Itʼs a great,  great contribution to society, what youʼre doing.”

Recently, Amy wrote in an email, “I miss her already.  I miss our talks on the phone.  I learned so much from her. She was probably my single biggest cheerleader.  Always encouraging.”

 She added,  “I just can’t believe she is gone.  She was one of the greatest people I will ever know.”

(Please follow the link to Betty’s story published in the Plain Dealer in 2010.

Betty Gold-July, 2011 ©Photos by Amy Gaskin

Betty in her home, 2011. ©Photo by Amy Gaskin