Bringing a smile to their eyes

Photographers offer free photo sessions to families dealing with cancer

Story by Casey Lessard
Photos courtesy Sandra Regier

“You always have the image that this can’t happen to me, this is going to happen to somebody else,” says Michelle Smith, whose brother Mike Steckle is recovering from cancer. “You just think it can’t happen to someone who’s 35 and healthy. It can happen to anyone. It affects everybody in some ways.”
Steckle was diagnosed last August after experiencing disabling back pain.
“I couldn’t walk anymore,” he says. “Dr. Teeple at emergency said we’re going to do some blood work, and she told me later that she thought from the start that I had leukemia. It was pretty advanced along, so I spent the next six weeks in hospital trying to get into remission.”
The therapy was successful, but the road to recovery was long and painful.
“I spent the next five months sleeping to recover from the chemo and radiation,” he adds. “I had zero energy and clots in my lungs. The beginning of this spring, things got a lot better.”
In the meantime, his business, a power-washing company, had to continue without him as a hands-on operator.
“The best I could do was drive there and sleep in the truck, letting the guys do the work. I did that for four or five months. I had no control over what the guys were doing, so I learned to be more laid back. It puts life in perspective.”
That’s where Michelle Smith’s friend Sandra Regier comes in. Her job is to put everything in perspective and capture the moment on film (or in the modern era, on a memory card).
“It had been almost ten years since we had family pictures taken,” Smith says. “Sandra called me and told me about Smiling Eyes, and asked me if we would be interested. I said yes instantly, because I knew my mom and my brother would love it.”
Smiling Eyes is a non-profit organization of photographers who offer their time and talent to photograph people dealing with cancer. Photographers spend time with the family and provide the images on a CD free of charge. No catch.
“My aunt passed away three years ago,” Regier says. “I had photos of her, but not a portrait of just her. I ended up making a portrait of her in Photoshop because we didn’t have one. It would have been nice to have had the forethought to take a photograph instead.
“I think it’s important to capture the stages of life, whether you’re healthy or not. To be able to look back years ago and see how big the kids were. On a personal note, I made a point of getting my picture taken this year with each of my kids. It’s just so important to have pictures of your family. When you look back and see how much people have grown and changed, you realize how important those images are.”
Michelle Smith agrees.
“A lot of people don’t take the time to get family pictures taken. It’s great to have somebody who wants to come into your home and capture memories. I don’t know when we would have taken a family picture if Sandra hadn’t called us.”
“It gives you the memory,” Steckle says. “I have a pretty good prognosis. God forbid anything should happen, you have the portraits for your family. It’s nice to have a decent picture that everybody’s in.”
Other families are seeing the value of the process, too.
“The family I took pictures of Sunday,” Regier notes, “the daughter said they wished they had done this a year ago because her dad isn’t with them anymore. Now her mom has lung cancer, so they wish they had the picture with their dad. But at least she’ll have a picture with her mom and her little girl.”
And the photographer gets the satisfaction of doing something nice for someone who will appreciate it.
“I think pictures are important. We do this free of charge, and the images are theirs to do as they will. Hopefully they’ll hang them on the wall.”
To reach Sandra Regier or find out more about Smiling Eyes, call 519-852-4892 or visit