Hearts Apart But Never Far
How a Lavale Native is doing his part for our deployed and their families
Photography for this feature courtesy of Brownie Harris and Ross Whitaker for Hearts Apart
The year is 1918. A young soldier is deployed overseas – thousands upon thousands of miles away from his young wife and their small children. The only reminder he has of home is the tattered photograph of his loved ones back home he keeps tucked into his uniform. But that simple memento is all the incentive he needs on some days to continue the mission and to come home safely.
More than one hundred years later, that is still the objective behind a successful White House endorsed non profit co-founded ten years ago by a guy who grew up in a small modest house on Third Street in Lavale.
In 2011, renowned and award winning photographer Brownie Harris (a graduate of Allegany High School who still counts among his friends William H Macy and Al Feldstein) founded Hearts Apart, with fellow photographer and entrepreneur Brett Martin. The two formed a simple mission – professionally photograph families of soldiers (both men and women) of every branch of the military. And do it at no cost to the families.
As part of the program, the deployed soldier received a nearly indestructible photograph printed on a special vinyl that is tear and burn resistant to keep tucked into a secret panel of the uniform and the family of the deployed has a larger print of that same photo at home – while the family members hearts are apart.
“I always wanted to do something bigger with my photography,” Brownie told Allegany Magazine via his home now in North Carolina. “Doing something bigger” is a grand statement from a man who is working on a coffee table book of a career that has included portraits of Miles Davis, Bill Clinton, Sophia Loren, Carly Simon, and John F. Kennedy Jr. “I was really surprised that no one had thought of this idea earlier than ten years ago.”
“HeartsApart.org was created to keep families connected while our military men and women are serving abroad. Through the efforts of our community's finest photographers, HeartsApart.org provides our soon to be deployed servicemen and women with pictures of their spouses and children,” says the non-profit’s website. “The photographs are printed on waterproof and durable bi-folded cards, which fit securely in their uniform pocket. HeartsApart.org believes that our military personnel deserve and need the memory of their families to carry them through the difficult times that lie ahead.”
Founded a decade ago at military bases in North Carolina and Delaware, the program started off humbly enough.
“When this first started, I was doing all the work and all the photography – well, Brett and I –and we were paying for everything – even transportation for the families to get to us – and it really took over our lives,” Brownie recalls.
Registered as an official charity allowed Hearts Apart to then contract and partner with other photographers and now the organization has more than 400 photographers under their umbrella with each one near or on a military base stateside and internationally – allowing families the convenience of booking the photographer closest to them.
“We did a story for a newspaper or a magazine in North Carolina and then FOX News did a story on us and from there it really took off,” Brownie says.
In 2012, the Joining Forces Community Challenge was launched to recognize citizens and organizations with a demonstrated and genuine desire to be of service to military families. From more than 300 submissions, HeartsApart.org was invited to the White House as a “2012 Joining Forces Community Challenge Finalist”, ranking 3rd in “People's Choice” voting.
“And in 2012, we went to the White House to be honored as a charity doing work for military families,” Brownie says. “We got to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden mentioned Hearts Apart by name in her speech that day.”
HeartsApart.org recently expanded their services and are now providing photographs of newborn babies born to military personnel who were serving abroad and were not able to attend the birth due to their military obligations. Even a decade later, the HeartsApart.org program continues to be offered at no cost to those participating in the portrait sessions.
“The goal of HeartsApart.org is simple. As long as servicemen and women are in harm's way and separated from their families, we will be taking pictures. There is no end to the project - just a commitment to continue to serve our Armed Forces while they continue to serve us,” says Brownie.
“For the last year, HeartsApart.org has been working very hard to make what we all knew to be a great cause a reality,” says cofounder Brett Martin. "Today HeartsApart.org, with the help of its first sponsors, developed a website and started shooting what will be the first of countless family portraits for our servicemen and women.”
One of the first families Brownie Harris personally photographed a decade ago was Suzy and Teddy Bucierka. Now stationed in Southern California, Suzy Bucierka told Allegany Magazine she remembers the experience being quite impactful.
“It was phenomenal. Brownie Harris treated me like a rock star. We had hair and makeup and a big professional photography shoot. Here I was getting my photo taken by a man who had photographed Miles Davis and Sophia Loren. It’s been more than ten years and I am still talking about the experience,” Suzy tells Allegany Magazine from her home in California now. “I thought it was a very altruistic cause. This group donates their time and talent to men and women in the service.”
Suzy says she and her Lieutenant Colonel Marine husband have moved with the military 13 times. And her husband has had seven deployments. The majority of all of those moves, the photo from Hearts Apart has been with her.
“Each time my husband was deployed he carried two things in his uniform with him. He had a prayer card and that photo Brownie too,” Suzy says. “It’s a great morale booster. It gives families something to look forward to while they wait for deployment and then it gives the service men and women a reminder of home when they away from home and surrounded by nothing but green and brown.”
While Brownie Harris, HeartsApart.org Director of Photography, has worked professionally for 35 years with a very distinguished career, it is his work with Hearts Aware that he says is his most “significant.”
“When you see the reaction from these families. It is very fulfilling. We photograph them very professionally and we create works of art for them,” he says. “Every once in a while you do something that makes everything else worth it. Of all the things I have done in my career – and I have done a lot – I think this is the most significant. This is when I know I am making a difference in what I do. Look, it’s all about – what can we do to help our service people out?”