Nothing can take away the pain and anxiety of having a loved one deployed overseas — but for Karen Tebbeharris and her three children, a program called Operation: Love Reunited helped them get through it.
The program, nicknamed OpLove, involves a network of photographers all across the country who offer free sessions to families with loved ones scheduled for deployment.
Families are typically photographed once before deployment, and again as soon as their loved one returns home. For a service member already overseas, OpLove offers sessions for their family members at home; an album with the finished photos is sent to their stations abroad.
Tonee Lawrence had the idea for OpLove in 2006 after her husband came home from duty in Qatar.
“My husband was deployed and I wasn’t able to get any pictures of our family when he came home because I was hugging him and stuff,” Lawrence said. “The kids were really little so we really missed out on a precious moment there.”
More than 850 photographers volunteer for OpLove. While the program does accept donations, most of the costs are covered by the photographers.
“They pay for almost everything out of pocket — their time, printing, canvases — all paid for by the photographers.” Lawrence said. “We’re really proud of it and very dedicated to the clients and the service.”
Nothing shows that dedication more than Lawrence’s relationship with the Tebbeharris family.
“I met Tonee when she first moved to the area for her personal photography business,” Tebbeharris said. “I called to schedule a session and when she found out my husband was going to be deployed, she told me about OpLove.”
The Tebbeharrises have three kids. The oldest, Mykala, is 11. Sebastian is 10 and the youngest, Aurora, is 4.
They had their first session before Karen’s husband, TSgt. Jayson Tebbeharris, left for Kuwait. Karen said having the photos to look at while he was gone made all the difference.
“It was really helpful for us,” Tebbeharris said. “The kids were able to sit and look through and say, ‘There’s Daddy!’ The older ones can understand it more so it helps them to have the photos but it makes a big difference, especially for the younger ones. If there’s not a visual connect it makes it really difficult on their return.”
The OpLove sessions are not only free, Tebbeharris says there’s a level of closeness you don’t get from a traditional photography session.
“They make it very personal, whereas traditional photos can be kind of stiff. They really catch the emotion,” Tebbeharris said. “It’s been really helpful for us and I can only imagine how much more helpful it is for families who’s husband or father doesn’t come home.”