Reading specialist Ashley Curtis has two passions outside the classroom: community service and photography.

Five years ago, she found a way to blend those outside interests with her job at Cottonwood Elementary School in the Vail Unified School District. She started the Through Our Eyes Project, an after-school program that encourages students to conceive, create and complete a service-learning project to benefit the community.

"My hope is that they leave (school) knowing that they can make a difference; that if there is something they want to do, they can do it," Curtis said.

For the first couple of years, students organized fundraisers at their school to benefit local organizations - last year they raised enough money to buy $1,800 worth of camera equipment for children at Tu Nidito Children and Family Services. But this year, the students wanted to venture into their community.

At the beginning of each school year, Curtis, a Tucson native, makes a school-wide announcement about the project and encourages any interested students to fill out an application. She also approaches individual students who might benefit from the after-school program.

"I do try to target kids who normally may not participate in school activities or who are kind of shy," she said.

A large part of the project involves photography and each participant is issued a camera. Curtis has a dozen cameras and so far participation has not exceeded equipment. But she doesn't limit the number of students who want to join.

"I will take all who want to do it. If there's more of an interest, I'll find more cameras," she said.

Each school year, Curtis offers a suggestion for a project, but so far students have come up with their own ideas. This year they decided to combine photography and digital storytelling to raise money for dog-rescue organizations.

They met after school every Monday for an hour and a half to two hours, plus they met for several hours one Saturday a month to work on their project in the classroom and take field trips to learn more about the dogs they were helping. They also photographed the dogs and their adoptive owners and conducted interviews, which they used to write the narration for their DVDs. Then they combined the photos and narration with music to create their digital stories.

Their work culminated with a show called "Our Voice, Our Eyes," which they presented Saturday at The Loft Cinema to raise funds for the animal-rescue groups.

Antonio Conca, 9, participated in the project because he believes dogs should "be treated more respectfully."

Zoe Rodriguez, 10, made a video about three dogs.

"They weren't treated very nicely and I had to figure out how they were feeling before and how they feel now," in their adoptive homes, she said of her approach to telling their stories.

Natalie Ruelas, 9, told the story of a golden retriever whose family lost their home to foreclosure. They had to move into an apartment and were forced to give up their family pet to a rescue group. That's where he was adopted by a new owner, "and she's his forever home now," Natalie said.

Through her research she learned, "If you're going to have a dog, make sure you have enough room and a doghouse and a water bowl and a bed," but most importantly, "they need love."

Who they are

Each year up to a dozen students in second through fifth grades at Cottonwood Elementary School participate in the Through Our Eyes Project. They develop a service-learning project to benefit the community.

This year's participants are: Roan Hookland, 7, second grade; Seirra Hill, 8, third grade; fourth-graders Monsi Barrios, 10, Antonio Conca, 9, Gypsy Hookland, 10, Zoe Rodriguez, 10, Natalie Ruelas, 9, and Ben Vega, 10; and fifth-graders Nadine Chau, 11, and Andreu Jones, 12.

How to help

This year's "Through Our Eyes" community service project from Cottonwood Elementary School students benefits local dog-rescue organizations.

All 10 students took photographs and conducted interviews, then edited them together to create their individual DVDs. Proceeds from the sale of DVDs will be donated to Arizona Greyhound Rescue and Rescue a Golden of Arizona.

The cost is $5 for a DVD from an individual student or $20 for all 10 DVDs.

For more information about the project or to purchase a digital storytelling DVD, go to the school's website:

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at or 573-4191.