PLEASANT HILL -- As a child, Yolanda Mendoza always thought a camera would take her to places she only dreamed of visiting, but when she grew up, she realized her camera would lead her to places where she was needed the most.
Like the streets of San Francisco -- not the notable landmarks -- but the nondescript places of the homeless and destitute. Except she's not photographing them huddled up in some corner of a business or an alley. Mendoza's camera has captured the homeless singing on the streets of San Francisco.
"Singing has changed their character and built their confidence," said Mendoza, of Pleasant Hill.
Mendoza knows what it's like to struggle. She put herself through college and was the first one in her family to receive a college degree. In Texas where she was raised, Mendoza volunteered to help Spanish-speaking students improve their English skills.
"I wanted to be an example to those children and show them that with an education, anything can be done," she said.
When Mendoza found herself out of work nearly two years ago, she thought about volunteering again.
"It was while I was at a photo conference when I heard the words 'photo philanthropy,'" she said.
She later met Kathleen McGuire, artistic director of Singers of the Street (SOS), a San Francisco-based community choir for people affected by homelessness. McGuire was looking for a volunteer to help take photos of the singers during rehearsals and performances.
So Mendoza, with camera in hand, attended her first rehearsal in March 2011 not knowing what to expect.
"I was a little apprehensive," she said.
Soon, the singers welcomed Mendoza into the group. She began to get to know each choir member while taking photos.
"I started participating and learning all their songs and improved my own singing voice."
Pam Quiton, one of the singers, said that SOS helped boost her self-esteem and find her voice in more ways than one. Quiton said she and Mendoza encouraged each other to sing their best.
Quiton said Mendoza wasn't just there to take photos -- she bonded with the group and really cared about them.
"When Yolanda found out I didn't have a comforter, she gave me one," Quiton said.
SOS has changed her life for the better and it's people like Mendoza that help others see the value in themselves, Quiton said. For example, when Mendoza took time to interview each choir member for stories she wrote to go with the photos, Quiton, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, said all of a sudden she didn't feel invisible anymore -- she felt that she mattered.
"I would stay home and not feel good about myself," said Quiton. "But whenever I'm in pain, I see the photos Yolanda took of me and the singers and I feel better. SOS helps me get out and feel good about myself as we go to different places to sing."
McGuire, who established SOS more than two years ago after she visited her native Australia and saw that her friend had established a choir of homeless singers, said the singers and the public have enjoyed viewing the photos Mendoza took at SOS performances.
"I wanted to capture the stories their eyes tell you, the hardship you see in their eyes," Mendoza said. "But singing brings joy to their eyes."
"One of the great things about having her with us was that she came to sing with us," McGuire said. "SOS has helped people realize that music has brought us all together."
The choir is now known by their signature song "Stand By Me" which they perform at most of their concerts.
"This is a way for us to honor them," McGuire said of the thousands of homeless who have died on the streets.
McGuire said having the homeless and destitute participate in a choir program like SOS has become a worldwide movement.
"These programs have really changed the way the whole country looks at homelessness," said McGuire of the program in Australia.
Mendoza, who also volunteers her time taking portraits of families who have terminally-ill children, has taken a break from photographing SOS to pursue her own employment opportunities. She still keeps in contact with the group.
"We'll always have Yolanda along with us wherever we sing," McGuire said.
For Mendoza, spending nearly a year photographing, singing and sharing stories of joy, overcoming adversity, and triumph has been the most memorable photographic experience of her life.
"As we bonded, we respected each other and that's when I realized there's no difference between us," Mendoza said. "I hope my photos help bring awareness to their cause and helps them feel special as I captured their natural radiance."
For more information, visit www.singersofthestreet.org.