Volunteer photographer Astrid Gale shows a father and daughter the portraits she took of them.

Several families in eastern Iowa are doing something this month they’ve not been able to afford to do before – place holiday cards, featuring family photos, in the mail.

A group of volunteers in Cedar Rapids organized last week’s free family photo sessions by turning a church classroom into a portrait studio. Amy Mueggenberg started the Greater Cedar Rapids Area Help-Portrait group five years ago and coordinates all the volunteers.

“My favorite part is working all year round on it and then getting here, giving it to the volunteers and just watching the magic happen,” Mueggenberg said. Valerie Jedlicka brought her family in for a photo session, including two toddlers in matching red and black plaid. Jedlicka said she’s thankful for the opportunity to create happy memories.

“The funds just aren’t there to get family pictures and it’s been great that they can help us out,” Jedlicka said. Jedlicka was among more than a thousand individuals getting their photo taken for free in the local Help-Portrait’s biggest event yet. Eric Jones was there with his four kids and wife for their first-ever family portrait.

“It was a very nice experience. They got a lot of families together. A lot of nice looking families. This means a lot you know to see the smiles around the Christmas season,” Jones said. “We got some nice photos that we can send out through the holidays. Finally, we can make some post cards and stuff like that with our photos.”

This year, the Help-Portrait group also offered photo sessions to people in nursing homes and high school seniors. Eighteen-year-old Jose Guadalupe Juarez Estrada was thrilled to get a professional photo to mark his last year of high school.

“I’m very excited, I brought a whole bunch of clothes to change out with, I brought some props. I think I feel blessed because I don’t have to pay for anything, they just get to help me out, take my senior photos. They’re pretty important to me,” Estrada said. Volunteer photographer Astrid Gale and her husband Tim come back each year to shoot portraits.

“Just seeing the smiles and the excitement and joy, for them it’s a huge blessing and privilege to be here and having their photos taken – it’s beautiful to see their excitement,” Gale said. Volunteers also edited the photos, made some prints, and delivered the professional portraits over the weekend.

(Story and photo by Katarina Sostaric, Iowa Public Radio)