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Column: Spreading joy through The Giving Pears Project

Elizabeth Lopez had always kept her health issues private. As a photographer who specializes in weddings and family portraits, she worried about how clients might perceive her if they knew the challenges she was facing.

Would they be confident in her ability to capture such important moments in their lives?

Even some of her long-term customers who had booked her for multiple photo shoots over the years — from an engagement through the birth of a child — didn’t know her history.

Now 34, Ms. Lopez has already endured a lifetime of serious health ailments and has emerged stronger through each battle. It started at age 13, when she was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system that affects between 6,000 and 7,000 children a year in the United States, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She endured eight months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation.

At 25, a year after her own wedding, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was a particularly painful diagnosis considering how she had watched her aunt suffer and die from the same disease.

Most recently, at 30, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

“Within all the tragedies that have happened in my life, I’ve always been surrounded with love and support from people which has been amazing,” she said.

She feels healthy and strong today and manages her MS without medication. Last summer, as she thought about everything she had been through, she recognized the time had come to open up. She wanted to follow her heart and give back and support other families facing similar struggles, particularly children suffering as she once did.

Ms. Lopez had started her business, called White Pear Photography, “on a whim” after graduating from LIU Post. During her senior year, she had taken a “very surreal photo” of a pear split in half. Her professor encouraged her to submit it into an art exhibition and she won best in show. That served as the inspiration for her business name. She followed up with Little Pears, the name she uses for family-focused photo shoots.

In August, she shared her story publicly for the first time in a social media video. 

“There’s a need to give back at this point because I know how lucky I am and I know how blessed I’ve been and I need to pay it forward,” Ms. Lopez, who lives in Farmingdale, said in the video.

She announced a new initiative she called The Giving Pears Project.

Her goal was to meet families with medically fragile children and gift them a free photo session. She hoped to pick one family every month through nominations.

In sharing her story, she said she “wanted to receive feedback that inspired people as opposed to it inducing fear.”

And that’s just what has happened.

The Giving Pears Project is how my wife, Liz, and I got to know Ms. Lopez. In August, just four days after Ms. Lopez announced her project, we welcomed our daughter, Winnie, into the world. She faced a challenging start to her life due to a congenital heart defect called dextro-transposition of the great arteries, or d-TGA. She underwent open heart surgery two days after birth and we spent two weeks at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in Manhattan during her recovery.

How to nominate

Know a family that would be an ideal match for The Giving Pears Project? Email [email protected] and provide the family’s name, a brief description of their story and their contact information.

With Winnie set to celebrate her sixth-month half-birthday in February — the same month that features Congenital Heart Defects Awareness Week from Feb. 7-14, around Valentine’s Day — Liz thought it would be a perfect time to set up a heart-themed photo shoot. She reached out to Kaitlyn Ferris, a talented photographer who specializes in wedding photography. Ms. Ferris encouraged Liz to check with Ms. Lopez. We didn’t know it at the time, but Ms. Ferris had shared our daughter’s story as a nomination for The Giving Pears Project.

A few weeks passed before Liz reached out to Ms. Lopez about a possible photo shoot as we hemmed about whether we wanted to spend the money. We were shocked to discover Ms. Lopez was willing to gift us the session.

“Every single family I’ve met and every single kid I’ve met who has been through something has been the most amazing, strong, loving, sincere, just really genuine human,” Ms. Lopez said.

The Giving Pears Project is just getting started and Ms. Lopez said she’s done a handful of sessions. She already has many more nominations lined up.

Earlier this month, Ms. Lopez spent an hour with us taking family portraits and close-ups of our smiling, bubbly daughter surrounded by hearts that we’ll cherish forever.

When she announced the project, Ms. Lopez said, “Even though life can be really hard sometimes, it’s really beautiful to be alive and I want to celebrate that.”

Ms. Lopez said the work she does now through The Giving Pears Project is the most meaningful and fills her with pride. The feedback she’s since received since sharing her story has quieted any of the fears she once felt. And the families and children she meets inspire her to keep going.

“It gives me hope that there are still really good people in this world,” she said.