CHICAGO — Amid a cacophony of playing children, a buffet of holiday food and a live choir singing Christmas carols, young moms like Davia McDaniels and Tabitha Rogers tried to hold their children still long enough to look in their eyes for a second or two.
The residents of New Moms, a family support organization based in the Austin neighborhood, were partaking in the nonprofit’s annual holiday party, in which professional photographer Rencie “Ren” Horst focuses her lens on the bond between mother and child. The free family portraits provide tangible memories for those who don’t have the means to afford such a luxury.
“I do my best to capture the real-ness from the family,” Horst said. “I want them to see the happiness that others see in them, and I especially want the moms to see they are doing a great job. I get the most joy after telling the moms about the warrior spirit I see in them and then getting the genuine, glowing smiles from them.”
This year marked the second time that Horst, a Portage Park resident, donated her time to New Moms, which provides resources and housing to young new mothers, working with them to break the cycle of poverty.
Rogers, 24, was dressed for the occasion with 1-year-old daughter, Kinzie, who donned a black dress onesie with patent leather Mary Janes and black-and-white dress coat. Horst remembered Rogers from the 2017 photo shoot — Rogers said she has that first portrait in her apartment at the facility.
“The portraits are so meaningful and nice,” she said.
McDaniels, a mother of two, agreed. With the 24-year-old was her 11-month-old daughter, Dakota. The former Cabrini-Green resident has lived at New Moms since last year; she moved out of her mother’s home about three years ago while pregnant with her first child, D’Khari. Both Rogers and McDaniels are working on job skills and saving for a future outside of New Moms in 2019.
“I wanted to take a picture this year,” McDaniels said. “This program has changed my life, because I don’t know where I would be at if I didn’t stay at New Moms. They help you with so many things — further your education, jobs, food.”
McDaniels hopes to move out of the state when her time at New Moms expires. She currently has a job at Macy’s in the Loop, and she’s focused on acquiring employment in Lansing, Mich., where she has family.
Laura Zumdahl, CEO of New Moms, was on hand during the holiday party, adjusting the timbre of her voice to the room’s excitable volume.
“It’s coordinated chaos, and every year it gets a little bit bigger and bigger,” she said smiling. Having helmed the 35-year-old organization for the last five years, Zumdahl called the young mothers “leaders” of their families and said New Moms seeks to empower that.
“A mom can’t be successful if her kids are not, and a kid can’t be successful if mom’s not — their success is woven together,” she said. “We work with families for years at a time; it’s not a one-and-done thing. The reality is, interrupting poverty takes time, it takes getting education, skills and a lot of hard work. Our new moms have everything they need in them, they just need coaching, help and support to bring that out. We really want to help them write their story — and their child’s story — in a different way.”
The stories of New Moms’ families can be seen in the hallways of the organization’s headquarters. Dozens of the two-generation holiday portraits taken over the years hang on a wall near the facility’s entrance.
“If you have a good family photo, it’s a really neat, treasured thing,” Zumdahl said. “Our families get a copy of the pictures, framed. They look forward to it. It’s just one of the extra ways that we can support them, and it’s important for us as parents to capture those moments with our kids.”
Horst, a mother of five and a former single mother of three, can relate to the struggle that single mothers endure, which is why she gives of her time and talent for the cause.
“In today’s world, everyone is so caught up in the ‘selfie’ image and cellphone captures,” Horst said. “I think it has caused us to lose a little bit of what it means to be a part of photographic art; the kind of art that gets passed down for generations — the kind of images that keep our memories alive. I love that I am able to deliver these kind of priceless images to moms who wouldn’t consider professional portraits.”