Isabelle FlenerALTON - At age 16, Isabelle Flener dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool. Her next three years were spent at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital, undergoing therapy as she regained her memory and learned how to live following a traumatic brain injury.

Now 21, Flener is not only doing much better — she’s thriving. The photographer is Milton Schoolhouse’s Artist of the Month, and she’s preparing for a month-long trip to Tanzania, where her photos will pay for her accommodations. Her photography is her art, but it’s more than that. Photography helped her rebuild her life.

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“It’s helped me to reinstate my will, honestly, just to grow and live and all of that,” Flener said. “It’s helped me find so much beauty and normalcy.”

Flener always loved taking pictures. Her mother worked as a photographer when Flener was younger, but while she specialized in posed photos, Flener started taking pictures of nature and wildlife. The family’s travels and hikes served as inspiration for much of Flener’s photography.

When disaster struck, those photos became a lifeline. Flener lost “all of [her] memory, literally everything.” She learned about her life through pictures. And when the time was right, Flener picked up her camera again.

“I just started falling in love again with photography, and it helped me get me back,” she said. “I spent three years going through four different therapies five times a week. I really just kind of built my life back. I was told that I would never be able to travel, do anything like this, literally function as a human being. So I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to prove you guys wrong.’ And now I’m here.”

These days, Flener travels nearly constantly. She just returned from Costa Rica — her first solo trip — and she has forged friendships with people all over the world.

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As she prepares to leave for Africa, she is focusing on finding the beauty in Alton and the Riverbend region. She drives around in her yellow car, hikes in her yellow shoes and takes photos. Just like photography helped her rebuild her life, now the medium helps her find the “magic.”

“It’s helped me kind of romanticize my own life and be like, wow. Even me not traveling at all, even me just in my hometown, there’s so much beauty to it,” she explained. “It’s helped me to make things feel more magical and special to me, even if it’s just the most simple thing.”

Flener specializes in nature and wildlife photography. When she is staring at a scene and wishes she could memorize it forever, that’s when she pulls out her camera. The resulting images have been displayed at Jacoby Arts Center and now have a home at Milton Schoolhouse for the month. And of course, Flener’s mother has her photos hung up all over their home.

But while Flener is proud of her display at Milton, she is mostly focused on giving back. All of the proceeds from her photos at Milton will go to Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital. She can't wait to share her story with other patients.

“When I get to take whatever I make back to them, I’ll get to share and be like, ‘Hey guys, I did this. I’m traveling. I’m doing things we never thought I’d be able to do,’” Flener said.

She hopes to continue traveling and spreading her photos as far as she can around the world. Through her experience and her travels, she has found the value of “learning to do stuff scared.” She encourages other people to rely on their passion and push themselves to do what scares them. While the world has proven to her that it can be “terrifying,” she also sees a lot of beauty in it.

“I would really just say, especially for people who are going through a really hard time and struggling, just find something that makes you happy and let that be your light out of your darkness,” Flener added. “I think that’s really what helped me. I felt so stuck in darkness, that I wasn’t going to get any better. Nothing was going to be better. Finding something that brought me joy and brought me happiness and especially something that I could use to inspire other people [helped me]...That's really what’s gotten me to do all these things. And I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.”

To see more of Flener’s photography, follow her Facebook page or Instagram profile.

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