Steamboat Springs Lilia Utu stared at the children and some of them stared back at her.
Some of them smiled, some of them laughed, some of them looked away as if hope might be found in a different direction.
But all of the children revealed in a series of black and white photographs showed strength in the disabilities they faced and courage against their terminal illnesses, said Utu, a Steamboat Springs High School senior.
Students at the high school attended a Friday presentation by the Children's Legacy Foundation, which displayed photographs of children suffering from cancer, HIV, sickle-cell anemia, learning disorders and other life-threatening conditions.
"The pictures are so fulfilling," Utu said.
The exhibit profoundly affected Utu and many of her peers.
"It's an eye-opener," said Lennae Jenkins, also a high school senior. "Lots of kids haven't been exposed to it here."
The telling of each child's story wasn't meant to be sad but to convey an uplifting message, said Katy Tartakoff, photographer and founder of Children's Legacy in Denver.
Tartakoff said most difficulties people face are not life-threatening and should be approached with as much courage as the children featured in the exhibit.
"Celebrate your own challenges and try to understand the challenges of others," Tartakoff said.
She said reaching out to people with disabilities and illnesses helps to understand them better.
Understanding and compassion also can lead to the beginning of tolerance and an end to the isolation a person can experience when they have a noticeable difference, such as the loss of hair from chemotherapy, the loss of a limb or a learning impairment.
Jenkins said she thinks most students struggle with accepting individual differences.
She said part of the problem stems from the students' false bravado taken on in their unwillingness to make themselves vulnerable by expressing their own struggles in life.
"The bottom line is if you are courageous enough to tell your story, you are much more likely to be able to listen to someone else's story," said Mary Kay Massey, marketing director of Children's Legacy.
Tartakoff recommended students use any creative medium comfortable to people to tell their stories and express their feelings.
She said understanding that all people have their own struggles is the first step in establishing a basic commonality between people.
"Inside all people are the same. Everyone wants to be loved and to give love back," she said.
Tartakoff said she feels she can capture the essence of every person through her photography.
"As a photographer, I look at the face and eyes of every person and I can see how much life is in them."