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Bradford native gives back to community through photoshoot fundraisers

'When there’s a tragedy or heartache in town, the town comes together, and this is just what I do too – help someone,' says local photographer

Cassidy Hilliard has lived in Bradford her whole life and discovered a unique way to give back to her community – through her passion for photography, hosting photoshoot fundraisers.  

Hilliard grew up in her family home on the 9th Line in Bradford. 

Hilliard just turned 35 last week and has three children: two daughters Emma, 15 and Summer, 5 and a stepson, Adam, 15. She is engaged to fiancé Craig Dowey, but due to Covid, they aren't planning a wedding any time soon.

At 19, Hilliard was about to begin courses at Georgian College for interior design when she found out she was pregnant with her first child. As a young mom, Hilliard dropped out of school and took a year off to focus on the pregnancy.

Once her daughter Emma was born, Hilliard enrolled at Seneca College in the ECE (Early Childhood Educator) program. After she graduated, Hilliard obtained placement at Denison Child Care in Newmarket working with special needs children.

“I love working with children,” shared Hilliard. "Once I had Emma, I realized I wanted to work with children." 

After seven years of working at Denison Child Care, Hilliard decided to take another year off to explore photography; a side passion that runs in her family. Hilliard’s mother used to do photography and kept many old cameras which Hilliard practiced with. 

“The whole family has had a camera in their hands at one point,” noted Hilliard.

Hilliard eventually went back to work and found employment in Bradford at Edukids, only to discover she was pregnant again. The birth of her youngest daughter, Summer, prompted Hilliard to start her own home daycare while keeping up with her photography on the weekends (mostly for friends and family).

When Summer was old enough to go to school, Hilliard closed her home daycare and decided to focus on her photography business, Hillside Photography. She supplemented her photography income with a part-time job at Linda’s Floral Designs, assisting with floral arrangements for holidays and being a helping hand wherever needed.

Then Covid happened, which put many restrictions on her photography business. 

“When we’re allowed to do photos, I do it,” shares Hilliard, noting that there are some photo sessions she cannot do due to Covid such as newborn photos. “I did a small wedding last summer, Covid-style – it was so much fun! But so weird to see people getting married with masks on. It is really hard, this is a learning curve for all of us photographers. We just have to go with it and use different kinds of lenses to allow for distance.”

Over the years, Hilliard has shot many weddings, cake smashes, birthdays, and family photos, but she loves working with kids the most.

“I’m very good at making [kids] laugh and getting them ‘un-nervous’ for photos,” said Hilliard. “Sometimes they hide their faces and won’t smile. I must read off them and figure out what will make them smile… the more you get them comfortable, the easier it is to get that smile!”

Hilliard began offering ‘mini shoots’ to the community with a charity component. She credits her father’s years of service with the Shriner’s and their involvement with fundraising as her inspiration to give back to her community.

“That’s where I learned to do something for somebody else,” said Hilliard. “Watching my dad give back as a Shriner was rewarding and taught me a lot.”

Hilliard’s first charity photo session was for a friend’s daughter, Morgan, who has a congenital heart defect.

In her honour, Hilliard hosted the session at Scanlon Creek with half the proceeds going to Sick Kids Hospital.  Hillside Photography raised over $700 plus an additional $300 in toys and gift cards for the cause. 

“It was awesome,” said Hilliard. “Morgan is doing OK now, nice and strong.”

Hilliard had such a great response for Morgan that she decided to do another one, this time for a little boy named Ethan, a patient in the cardiac unit at Sick Kids. The photoshoot was done at the Holland River Marina last Christmas and raised over $1,300. 

“That photoshoot was really good, but unfortunately [Ethan] is still struggling... in and out of the hospital a lot," she said. 

From the fundraisers, Hilliard was presented with a plaque from Sick Kids Hospital for her commitment to helping others in need. 

Hilliard has a soft spot for Sick Kids, as she was once a patient. 

“When I was born, I remained at Sick Kids for nine days due to one of my feet being bent the wrong way… doctors had to straighten my foot out for nine days straight,” remembers Hilliard.

In October 2019, Hilliard learned about local teen Daleyn MacIsaac who was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, receiving dialysis treatments five days a week at Sick Kids Hospital.

Hilliard felt a call to action and began planning a bowling fundraiser for the teen at Bradford Underground Bowl. News of Hilliard’s fundraiser spread quickly, with many community sponsors donating prizes and giveaways. The event raised over $5,000 for Daleyn and her family. 

“Just from the [bowling] lane sponsorship alone, we raised $2,400,” shared Hilliard. “It was a sold-out event… I even got a letter from our MP Caroline Mulroney thanking me for helping the community.”

But Hilliard’s help for Daleyn didn't stop there. 

Daleyn needs a new kidney and has been on a long waitlist for a transplant. To help raise awareness of organ donation, Hilliard organized a fall mini photoshoot with the ‘Be a Donor’ program, providing flyers, symbolic donor ribbons, and donor cards to clients. 

“Everyone who came to the session signed a donor card,” said Hilliard. “It’s so hard to find a donor, that’s why they need so many people trying. Even if you are a match, there are so many other factors that can mess it all up. Finding someone that’s healthy during a pandemic is difficult."

Hilliard did another fundraiser in the late fall to help the family of Bradford teen Siem Zerezghi. Zerezghi went missing from his home in late October, with his body discovered a week later in a pond off the 8th Line in Bradford. 

“After they found Siem’s body, I wanted to do something to help the family as well,” said Hilliard. “It hit too close to home. We lived near [Siem] and Emma knew him from school. I couldn’t imagine going through that with my kid.”

She organized a winter photoshoot at Pumphouse Gardens in Bradford and raised over $2,000 for the Zerezghi family, with 27 families attending. 

“I didn’t want [Siem’s] family to worry about finances, so this was just a small bit of financial relief," she said. “When there’s a tragedy or heartache in town, the town comes together, and this is just what I do too – help someone."

During Covid, Hilliard also gifted 10 essential workers and their families with free photo sessions; an initiative she called 'Gratitude Sessions'.

Hilliard will be doing more photoshoots in the future and will continue donating where she can.  

“Everybody always asks me why I keep donating during my photography – I could make my money but photography isn’t about making money,” expresses Hilliard. “I love taking photos and capturing everyone’s memories."

Hilliard’s next photo session will be ‘Mother’s Day Minis’, and hopes to gift one free session to one deserving family. 

To learn more about Hilliard and her photography, visit Hillside Photography | Facebook