Each month, for seven and a half years and counting, mom and portraitist Keri Vaca makes time to photograph society's most vulnerable women.
Her clients are homeless and pregnant. Virtually all were born into poverty, and many have battled addiction or are survivors of domestic violence.
But each sought support from a celebrated nonprofit called the Homeless Prenatal Program, founded 25 years ago by a nurse and Peace Corps volunteer named Martha Ryan.
HPP has helped these women achieve extraordinary results. Over 90 percent of their high-risk pregnancies result in healthy drug-free babies, exceeding the national average for all births, including low-risk pregnancies. Just as important, thousands of at-risk women have used HPP to find jobs and obtain permanent housing.
Martha Ryan models her approach on the refugee work she did 30 years ago in East Africa. In those camps, she would train female refugees to be healthcare providers in their communities. Not only did the women gain expertise, jobs and higher status, but when administering care to fellow refugees there was no cultural divide that often hinders outside aid workers.
The same strategy is in place at HPP, where over half of the group's 80 staff are former clients who once needed support.
"We have a policy here: we don't judge," Ryan told The Huffington Post. "If more than half your staff had been homeless at one point in time, had sat in that office applying for aid, being judged -- they know how it feels. There but for the grace of God, we could be in that position. So we don't judge. We believe that our clients, given the opportunity, can turn their lives around. We value them, and we respect them. And when you combine all those things together, people feel good about themselves."
Ryan believes that pregnancy can be a vital window of opportunity for at-risk women. "In the 25 years that I've been doing this work, I've never met a woman who really wanted to hurt her unborn child," she said. "All women who are pregnant and continuing with their pregnancy want to have a healthy baby." As a result, she said, they take extra effort seek out support and get access to information or resources they lack.
Martha Ryan and clients at HPP's office in San Francisco.
Keri Vaca, the maternity photographer, met Ryan when their children were in elementary school together. Vaca's mother was pregnant at 18, a high school senior. "Her pregnancy was not celebrated," Vaca said. "She only has two photos when she was pregnant with me."
Vaca asked Ryan whether she could volunteer her services, and Ryan invited her to visit. About a mile from the headquarters of tech giants like Twitter and Uber, HPP's office is modern and inviting, full of natural light and the hum of parents and kids and moms-to-be. "I was blown away with all they offered," said Vaca. She's been photographing expecting mothers there ever since.
“When I give moms the photos that Keri took, many of them get tears in their eyes," said Nancy Frappier, director of HPP's wellness center. "One mother said, 'I didn't know I was so beautiful as a pregnant woman.' Often the women we work with have a negative body image. Some pregnant women want to be on a diet to not gain any weight. These photos help them see what strong, beautiful women they truly are."
See more photos below, and learn about Vaca's photography here. You can make a tax-deductible donation to the Homeless Prenatal Project here. Bonus: if you make a gift of any amount by May 1 to honor your mom (or sister or friend or auntie), your loved one will receive a Mother's Day card featuring Vaca's photography.
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“I was filled with joy when I was given my prenatal picture. It took my breath away. It left me speechless, which does not happen all the time. But just to see it... it was kind of like, 'Wow, that’s me? That’s me! And I was growing a baby! What?!' I'm so grateful that I have this photo. I didn’t have the same kind of photo the first time around, and so that’s why I say that it’s really amazing how the moment comes and goes, but this picture is a great reminder of the blessing to be able to carry and give birth to a baby. And looking at it is like a prayer."
- Monique Woodford-Breaux, HPP client
“I was glowing. I feel like a halo was over me when I saw my picture. I got the prettiest dress from HPP. It was a colorful dress and I think I had a little bit of rhinestones, and I just got my hair freshly braided, and I had a nice gloss on. I couldn’t wait to take the pictures and I was just holding my belly, smiling. I felt like a star with my baby and me."
- Angela Jefferson, HPP client
— Homeless Prenatal (@HPP_SF) April 17, 2015