If you’d like to help The Molly Project, you can find out how through the group’s Facebook page (Facebook.com/TheMollyProject). Donations are always accepted; they’ll go toward helping women with cancer.
If you can help, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More than 20 years after losing her mother to cancer, Kristin Atkinson is channeling her grief into helping other women.
Atkinson of Cicero, Kristin Johnston of Cicero and Tara Polcaro of North Syracuse started The Molly Project as a way to provide comfort to women affected by cancer and their families. Named after Atkinson’s late mother, The Molly Project got its start a year ago when Johnston’s sister called her, looking for a way to help a co-worker with cancer.
“My sister and her co-workers wanted to pool resources together to hire a professional photographer as a gift to Wendy and her family,” Johnston said. “Wendy had voiced her concerns about losing her hair, so they wanted to give her that gift before the process happened. So my sister was shopping around for photographers, and I just kept encouraging her to hire Tara. I put the two of them in touch with each other.”
Polcaro said Wendy was looking for family photos that would illustrate happier times before the cancer ravaged her body.
“She knew that it wasn’t looking good and she just wanted to have family photos of her and her kids and her husband before her hair fell out,” Polcaro said. “Even though it wasn’t looking good, she was still fighting pretty strongly, so she was going to start chemo, and she just wanted some nice photos before all of that started.”
Polcaro then went to Wendy’s Baldwinsville home for the photography session.
“I went to go do it and just fell in love with them,” she said. “They were so wonderful. We had a wonderful session. I spent a few hours with them and just got to know them. It was very positive. It wasn’t really sad at all, and we just had a really good time.”
Once the session was over, Polcaro said she couldn’t stop thinking about Wendy and her family. She said she wanted to do something to help women like Wendy.
“She was in such a supportive work environment, but I’m sure there are a ton of women that do not have that kind of resource,” Polcaro said. “It really shouldn’t take all of these co-workers coming together so that she can have these photos taken. That could be a service to women.”
Polcaro contacted Johnston and Atkinson; the three are all moms with 9-year-olds, and they met at the North Area YMCA through their kids.
Several of the photos taken by North Syracuse photographer Tara Polcaro as part of The Molly Project are on display at The Red House in Syracuse.
The connection to the Red House came because of Molly Project client Mary Greer, who lost her battle with cancer last fall. Greer’s son is an actor at The Red House.
“The Red House reached out to us [because of Mary’s son] and asked how they could help and if they could host this gallery,” Polcaro said.
The mounted prints of the photographs were provided by another friend of Greer’s. Her family had created a scrapbook of the images Polcaro took and passed it around at her funeral.
“A gentleman who works for a photographic paper company was at Mary’s funeral and saw the scrapbook and heard about our organization and reached out to us to see how he could help,” said Kristin Atkinson. “So they printed all of the images for the gallery and had them mounted.”
Atkinson said she hopes the Red House gallery will help The Molly Project expand its reach.
“This is a great opportunity for us to get the word out and reach a different audience,” she said.
The photos will be on display until Feb. 8. The Red House is located at 201 S. West St., Syracuse.
Together, the friends came up with the idea to provide the same service Wendy had received free to women who have been affected by cancer. In the last year, they’ve worked with six different families.
“Being moms, being women, we wanted to help women,” Atkinson said. “Our focus is on the woman, whether she’s a caregiver or the one that is actually battling the disease.”
The project hits particularly close to home for Atkinson, who lost her mother to cancer 23 years ago when Atkinson was in high school.
“My sister and I have about 10 or 15 photos collectively that actually have my mom in them,” she said. “We have pictures of the dog and the neighbors and all of our friends and holidays, but she’s not in there.”
In addition to providing photographs to women affected by cancer, The Molly Project seeks to address that problem: the absence of women in family photographs.
“That’s one of the messages we want to get across to everybody, not just women — make sure you put yourself in the picture. It’s so important to your friends and family,” Atkinson said. “We can come up with a thousand excuses not to get our pictures taken. We do it all the time. I still do it. But it’s so important to have those. It really helps people as they go through their grieving process, or just to have fun down the road, to look at those and remember when. That’s our secondary message, really — if you’re lucky enough not to have your life touched by cancer or terminal illness right now, still, put yourself in the pictures.”
Though her mother isn’t in many pictures, Atkinson still has fond memories of her.
“Her name was Molly, and she, like any typical family, she was always the one taking pictures. She was an only child. She was a typical mom. She was a working mom, and the rest of her time was spent with us. She was born in northeastern Pennsylvania. We lived in Ohio when she passed away. She was always right there — every practice, every game. We do have albums and albums of pictures of our family; she was just taking them. It’s hard when my kids ask — ‘What did Grandma look like?’ or ‘What did she like to do?’ It’s hard not to have those pictures.”
Atkinson said she thought her mother would be thrilled with The Molly Project
“I think she would love it,” she said. “She encouraged my sister and me to follow our hearts. She was very into women’s rights and thought women could do anything. She would love that we’re doing it together, because her friends were so important to her.”
The project has been successful because each of the three friends brings something different to the table. Johnston is the organizer and “people person;” she answers the phone, email and Facebook inquiries and organizes everything. Atkinson brings her family history as well as a background in communications, to the project, while Polcaro takes the photos and meets with the families.
“To be able to photograph these moments is a gift,” Polcaro said. “It’s such a private and intimate time for people. I’m just a stranger when I walk into their house for the first time. Hopefully I leave a friend. But for all of us, it’s a gift that they’re so trusting to let you come in there and do this for them and letting you witness their life. It really is beautiful to me.”
It’s not only a gift to the three women, but to their subjects, as well.
“After I did that session with Wendy, we were on the phone, and she said to me, ‘For three hours, I forgot I was sick,’” Polcaro said. “That was huge. That was something we weren’t expecting.”
The photos also leave a heartwarming legacy in cases like Wendy’s when the subject loses her battle with cancer.
“I wanted to be able to get people laughing,” Polcaro said. “Laughing smiles are the best smiles to have, and to remember. Sitting on each other’s laps, holding hands, telling each other jokes, getting that crinkle in the nose that only comes from her when she hears something funny. Those little tiny insignificant moments that everyone takes for granted that become huge things for survivors of those families.”
It’s an emotional experience for all involved.
“We cry a lot, but, again, that’s the beauty of doing this together,” Atkinson said. “We cry. It’s all part of it. It’s also the happiness, too. When we open up those prints, it was like Christmas looking at the images. You are seeing the joy as well. It is bittersweet.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.