With the flash of a camera, local non-profit owner Kahi Jae captures memories that last a lifetime.

Project Payton, a local nonprofit organization, recently celebrated its fifth year of photographing children with special needs in Seguin and its surrounding areas. 

Jae, a photographer, solely operates the project she started back in 2014 out of a desire to honor a family member with special needs. 

“I have a cousin named Payton who has Down Syndrome,” Jae said. “Payton has overcome so many obstacles. She has special needs but she’s done just amazing things and she’s been my inspiration since I was younger, basically since I learned what a child with disabilities was. So I wanted to honor not just the fact that she has special needs but also the fact that she overcame them. I want to continue her legacy.”

To Project Payton mother Erica Morales and her four-year-old son Azariah Garcia, the non-profit is a breath of fresh air. 

“I would say we’ve been coming to Kahi for around three years already,” Morales said. “I saw an article in the newspaper that she was doing it so I reached out to her. I had a lot of people that wouldn’t want to take pictures of him (Azariah) because of his condition. And knowing that she had the patience and actually was wanting to take pictures made me feel really good about it.” 

Jae has been able to do more than simply take photographs, she captures memories, Morales said.

“I would say my favorite are his new newborn photos,” Morales said. “It’s great all the memories she has captured. A lot of stuff that I didn’t really get to capture with my other kids like his hands, his ears, his feet, and those are probably my favorite ones of him but they’re all really nice.”

From hidden cameras to humor, Jae employs many different techniques to invoke smiles from those particularly difficult subjects to get that perfect shot. 

“I have many methods, sometimes I even have to hide, but we’ll go to a park, and let them play,” Jae said. “I have some lenses that allow me to stay quite a ways back and I’ll zoom in and get them and those are actually some of my best sessions because they’re so candid and it’s usually a lot of interaction with the family. So it’s more of a memory than just ‘Oh, the photographer was able to get a good shot.”

The project has come a long way from its beginnings setting up shop in parks to sessions now in air-conditioned facilities, Jae said.

“I started with just a small entry-level camera and I would just go to the parks and meet up with clients wherever I could,” Jae said. “Now we have a three-room studio that we’re able to shoot at with climate control. That’s allowed us to overcome some obstacles with just that. When you have children who are medically fragile, you have to be careful of many factors. So having a building now has just been truly beneficial.”

Over the past five years of its operation, the non-profit has managed to touch the lives of scores of families in the area.

“When we started our first and second years, I think we only had 10-15 children total and now going into year five, we’ve met with over 100 families,” Jae said. “A Majority of my families are just individual families but sometimes it’s easier to get a group together and when we do we still try to focus individually on those families.”

Project Payton is not restricted to just children with special needs. In some cases, Jae will make an exception for an older subject as well. 

“Originally, it was supposed to be just children, but my heart doesn’t allow me to say no,” she said. “So I’ve done even adults, especially if it’s a child that started with me, and then they became 18-19, then I’ll still shoot them.”

Although she primarily works alone, Jae also teams up with schools and other non-profit organizations to maximize the reach of Project Payton.

“We have been with various non-profits as well as organizations like H-E-B, Walmart, Papa Murphy’s and many more,” Jae said. “One thing that we try to alleviate is pressure from the school year for our Project Payton kids because we know that with medical equipment, and medication and stuff like that, it gets hard for them expense wise, so we try to alleviate some of those expenses with school supplies and so forth.”

During the year, the non-profit has several seasonal campaigns that are completely free for those who wish to take part. The rest of the year’s photographs taken by Jae and her organization will run a small sum. 

“We provide three different free campaigns a year,” Jae said. “We have the Christmas campaign and the summer campaign. The birthday campaign is a free session for the child themselves. And then the rest of the year, those sessions are $25. I do summer because it’s usually before the children go into the next grade level and a lot of my parents have worries about their child not getting good photos through the school.”

Her operation is small right now but she has big plans for Project Payton, Jae said.

“Not only is this my passion but it is my gift,” she said. “I know this because my camera has brought joy to so many families, created so many memories. Photography has provided for my family for years. I couldn’t be more thankful. With God, I plan to make Project Payton as big as Make a Wish one day.”

To contact Jae or Project Payton, call 830-730-2503 or visit www.facebook.com/ProjectPayton .


Joe Martin is a staff writer for the Seguin Gazette. You can e-mail him at joe.martin@seguingazette.com .

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