'Front Steps Project' Founders, Who Found Family 'Joy' in Pandemic Portraits, Aim for 'Revival'

"What happened was this little idea between two mid-40-year-old women in Needham became a viral grassroots voluntary movement," Kristen Collins tells PEOPLE

Front Porch photo project
Photo: Cara Soulia

Just as residents across the country were asked to stay indoors to slow the spread of coronavirus, a Massachusetts photographer came up with a unique way to document families in her community — and influenced dozens of others to do the same.

Photographer Cara Soulia and her friend Kristen Collins started The Front Steps Project in March when they asked families in their neighborhood to pose on the front steps of their homes for a photo.

“It was amazing to connect with so many different people in the community, witness their stories and hear their responses of gratitude and positivity about the project,” Soulia, 45, tells PEOPLE of the project, which started with families in Needham, Massachusetts. “The families were so happy to do something out of the ordinary routine, even though it only lasted about two minutes.”

The duo’s initiative also offered a way for people to give back, as Soulia and Collins asked families to make a donation to a GoFundMe page to benefit the Needham Community Council, which provides food and other services for families in need of coronavirus relief.

After getting a large response from the community, Collins and Soulia recruited two other photographers to join their efforts.

“They hit the ground running and photographed about 60 families a day,” Collins, who helped plan the shoots, tells PEOPLE. “It was 20 families a day, sometimes 40 families a day each.”

The Front Steps Project
A Front Steps Project portrait. Topher Cox

The team says families were happy to participate in the project, especially since the photo session was something to look forward to while being stuck indoors for social-distancing precautions.

“It was a reason to shower, get dressed and get some fresh air,” Soulia says. “It was a reason to have a family snuggle on the front steps and to pause and be thankful they have each other during this uncertain time.”

“Families were so thankful that we have provided a simple way to give back and to support our town council during this time,” she continued. “It was joy. Pure joy.”

Collins says they wanted to act quickly and document as many families as possible before restrictions inevitably became tighter. But as their project received more attention on social media, other photographers from around the country reached out to see if they could contribute.

“What happened was this little idea between two mid-40-year-old women in Needham became a viral grassroots voluntary movement,” Collins says.

As of now, the project has been placed on hold, but Soulia and Collins hope to continue it once coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

Front Porch photo project
A Front Steps Project portrait. Caitrin Dunphy

“Our plan is to continue to respect the virus, as we say, and stay healthy. But we’re actively communicating with all of the photographers who participated in the first wave, and we, in Needham, are planning to restart when we feel we’re ready and it’s time… we’re hoping that everybody does a revival because that’s the kind of energy that communities will need.”

But in just a few short weeks with the participation of other photographers, the duo says they have helped to raise more than $225,000 for different organizations and nonprofits around the country as of Wednesday — all while bringing a momentary distraction for families who may be in need of it.

“I hope people look back at their family photo and remember this exact time in their life. It may not have always been easy or joyful to be at home with their family, but it is their history and I hope they look at their family picture and smile, knowing they were together,” Soulia says.

She adds: “I love that we can share all of the families we have photographed on social media so even though we are apart we can still feel together.”

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