Volunteering with Legal Aid During a Pandemic
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My name is Alison DeSilva. I’m the owner and founder of DeSilva Studios, a DMV-Area-based pet & family photography studio. Given my background, my connection to Legal Aid probably seems unlikely. But when they reached out to me in August 2020 (through a friend of mine who supports Legal Aid) to see if I could help them with their annual report photography project, I jumped at the opportunity. Here’s my story and how helping Legal Aid’s mission became so important to me:


Legal Aid's 2020 Annual Report Cover

Legal Aid's 2020 Annual Report Cover

When I realized I cared about Legal Aid’s mission.

When Legal Aid approached me to take photos of their clients for their 2020 annual report, I didn’t know much about the organization. The friend who connected me to Legal Aid was a long-time supporter of the organization, but that was about all I knew.

I immediately went to their website and perused past annual reports. I was struck by personal stories of injustice, courage, and perseverance from each client. There was nothing to deliberate. I said yes because it just felt like it was the right thing to do. I know that sounds so cliché but that is why. It not only gave me a new challenge (especially during the pandemic) but also a way to give to a community that is often treated unjustly.

What surprised me about this experience.

My original reason for doing these photo sessions changed. I not only wanted to give Legal Aid pictures for their annual report, but I also wanted to give their clients their pictures too.

Before each session I read the client’s story. I appreciated the chance to gain a snapshot of their lives and the injustices that brought them to Legal Aid.  My background and race have given me a privilege that I often take for granted. Meeting the clients in their communities was another reminder of the drastic social and economic inequalities of the system that we live in.

When I look back at the experience, I think one of the biggest surprises to me is that strength of character does not need a serious face. Warmth and laughter can reveal strength.

Legal Aid client Denise Humphries (right) and her children featured in the 2020 annual report

What I looked forward to and enjoyed most about this experience.

I enjoy interacting with people and learning about their lives. During this pandemic I got to meet and interact (as safely as possible) with many different people.

My skills as a photographer grew because each session posed new lighting and background conditions. And working with clients while wearing a mask and trying to social distance was a challenge. It required me to just go with the flow and be a proficient communicator. Many of the sessions started off with me suggesting a classic pose or two which led to a couple of attitude poses and then the fun started.

How volunteering has changed my life.

Meeting Legal Aid’s clients and seeing their strength and determination in the face of so much injustice was an illuminating experience for me. While volunteering, I witnessed a fraction of the realities that make the Black Lives Matter movement so important. As a society, we still have an enormous amount of work to do.

Legal Aid client James Wallace*, a two-time cancer survivor, faced ongoing health issues and a debt collection law suit during the pandemic. (*Name changed for confidentiality)

I am lucky that I can spend time and energy volunteering. My businesses stem from my volunteer work. I have spent many years volunteering for Animal Welfare Leagues. At the moment, I am working with the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. I get to spend time with some awesome animals. I photograph them for the AWLA’s website. And some of the images I have turned into one of a kind t-shirts.

Volunteering for Legal Aid opened my world. I found a critical cause that I plan to continue supporting.

Looking forward. . .

I hope my services will help Legal Aid connect with future clients and donors. I hope my photography can bring everyone it touches a little bit closer to each other to see that we are all human.

And I hope to be invited back to take pictures for Legal Aid’s next annual report!

About DeSilva Studios

Alison DeSilva and her rotti-mix Coco.


DeSilva Studios is a DC Metro Area-based pet & family photography studio run by owner and founder, Alison. DeSilva Studios had an unconventional beginning — at local humane societies and animal welfare shelters! Giving in to her love for animals big and small, Alison began photographing dogs and cats to help the welfare leagues post realistic images that would lead to adoptions. In the process, Alison fell in love with a dog and photography. Alison expanded her family to adopt Coco, a rotti-mix. And, she grew her photography hobby into a business! Her images went on to gain nation-wide attention, winning photo awards and contests.

Then Alison's business expanded after volunteering at her son's Montessori School taking student and family photos, Alison has emerged as one of Northern Virginia's premier class and individual student photographers. Known for her keen eye for timelessness and artistic expression, Alison is able to capture your child's unique style and personality in a way that shines through in every photo.

For the past ten years Alison has been photo-documenting pets and their people. Sought after for her signature look — classic, timeless, emotive, black and whites — Alison books quickly.

At DeSilva Studios, pets are family. As a pet owner, Alison understands the joy animals give us every day. Her images do the same. Whether your family includes a pet or a child, Alison's images allow you to experience their beauty, character and charm. Dogs, cats, fish, hamsters: pets — family — love.

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