No one had to prompt “Say Cheese” to elicit smiles from participants in the Help-Portrait free portrait day held at the Greater Wheeling Homeless Coalition.

“There were a lot of smiles. The whole day just had a really positive effect,” said E.J. Funkhouser, coalition program director.

“It was a very upbeat day,” said co-organizer and photographer Neal Warren of Wheeling.

Help-Portrait is an international movement to encourage and lend logistial support to local photographers to provide free portraits for people in their communities who don’t typically have the opportunity to have their portraits taken or the means to pay for them.

Warren and photographer Rebecca Kiger organized the Wheeling event on Feb. 10 through the homeless coalition. They brought together a committee of volunteers who helped spread the word about the portrait day to local agencies such as the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center and the Salvation Army. Dozens of volunteers and businesses donated everything from picture frames to hair styling to lunch meat for the box lunches provided to participants on portrait day.

“It exceeded my expectations. In the first year (of an event), you never know what to expect,” said Warren, who said he figured on a half-dozen volunteers and 10-20 participants.

“We ended up with between 50 to 60 people showing up. They were all so appreciative. We had refreshments, music playing, people there touching up hair and makeup, box lunches, crafts for the children. I think they were really just overwhelmed with what we had for them.” The box lunches were put together by Wheeling Central Catholic High School students with items donated from local grocers. Three Frederick’s Salon sylists donated their time.

“I had a wonderful experience, connecting with the community and hopefully creating a positive day for participants and volunteers. … I think the participants had a great time,” Kiger said.

Warren said a variety of subjects showed up – from families with children and infants, couples both young and old, multiple generations of families, and single men. “The demographic was all over the place,” he said.

Many of the subjects, including some of the older single men, told Warren and Kiger they hadn’t had a professional portrait done since high school.

While waiting for their sitting, children were encouraged to participate in craft projects provided by Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center staff and volunteers.

“We had the opportunity to serve as a family,” said Wheeling resident Missy Ashmore who has two young children. “The kids jumped in at the craft table, playing with other kids waiting for their portrait.”

She said the participants opened up while waiting for their pictures to be taken.

“They shared personal stories and some even cried. It was special,” Ashmore said.

“I was struck with the vulnerability of the clients,” said volunteer Molly Poffenbarger of Wheeling who also enlisted the support of the Junior League of Wheleing. “I think the courage it took for them to come in and let us fuss over them was very humbling.”

Funkhouser said when participants came to pick up their pictures, they were excited and many said they would be giving their pictures as gifts to family members. Each participant received not just one photo but a package they chose on portrait day that could include a variety of prints, from wallet size up to 8-by-10. The processing was donated by White house Custom Colour, the lab Kiger uses; and black portrait folders were donated by Top Packaging Solutions, with whom Warren does business.

Warren said the whole event came together in a matter of about a month.

“I was impressed, but not surprised, at the generosity of our community. Wheeling can be the kindest community on the planet,” said Ashmore.

Added Warren: “We plan to do this every year and it’s a little scary-exciting to think what we could put together with two to three months of planning. We might have to do it over two days instead of just one next year. … It’s a good problem to have.”