From the June 2016 issue of The Rotarian
When Ben Thwaits took a job teaching at a residential treatment center for troubled teens called Northwest Passage, the nature photographer and biologist wondered if the students might get as much out of taking photos as he did. So he applied for a small grant and got a few cameras.
Within a few weeks he knew he was on to something. “It wasn’t just the quality of the photos they were producing, which was astonishing,” says Thwaits, a member of the Rotary Club of Siren/Webster, Wis. “But I started to see that spark emerge in them where they would be asking all week long, ‘When can we do photography?’ And I’d never seen that in any other program I’d led.”
Soon, his groups were going beyond Wisconsin to shoot other locations, such as Yellowstone, Badlands, and Rocky Mountain national parks, and Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.
The program, which he called “In a New Light,” started to garner national attention. Today its photos have been displayed in over 50 venues across the country. During the seventh-inning stretch at Sunday afternoon Minnesota Twins home games, his students’ photos are shown while “God Bless America” plays. And the six-year-old program has been featured on PBS NewsHour.
“These are some of the most struggling kids you’ll find anywhere in the country, period,” says Thwaits. “And here they are creating this art that’s being seen by millions of people. They’re redefining what it means to have severe mental health issues, and the extreme beauty that can coexist with that pain.”