Our good friend Dee recently asked us, “where did the idea for the Don’t Give Up project originally come from? was it a result of planning for a long time, or did it just organically arise in you?”

We told this story. It’s a story we tell at every Don’t Give Up Project. It’s a story I have pictured myself writing in a letter to author, dreamer and schemer, Donald Miller many a time. But I get done with the letter and literally don’t know where to send it. How do you contact a person whose life is saturated in helping others and engaging in countless stories? So perhaps someday, Don, you will run across this blog post, and you will know a tiny sliver of the role you have played in our, and over a hundred other, lives.

Five years ago, my dad, Kent Arlington Wayne McElroy was sick. And not just sick, he was dying of cancer. The rapid moving kind, the kind in multiple places in the body, not able to be surgically removed – only treated with chemo and radiation. He was given a terminal diagnosis the day before my birthday, and that diagnosis included the unfortunate estimate of “two to three months to live.” My dad is the best man we have even known. He was a giant of a man in every single way but his stature and I promise you that, if you met him today, you would love him like a father/brother/best friend in one. He was that kind of man. There are countless stories that deserve to accompany the use of his name, but you will have to come to the DGU project to hear those for yourself because there’s just not enough time or space here.

One day, my dad caught wind that Donald Miller was writing a new book. My father, an avid reader and lover of all things honest, loved Don’s other books and connected deeply to them. So he decided to do what Kent McElroy does and he wrote Donald Miller, telling him his diagnosis and that although he would love to live long enough until the book was released, he feared that might not be something he can control and would Donald mind sending him a copy of the book he was writing. You never know what might happen when you ask for the things you most desire. My dad’s entire life was a beautiful testimony to this and this situation was no different. Don sent him a copy of the book. It had no finished cover, was missing some chapters and had typos, but he – out of the goodness of his heart – offered it to my dad, telling him he would be an “honorary editor” or something to that effect.

We spent the next months passing the book back and forth. Each weekend, we would go out of town and my parents would watch the kids while we were traveling shooting weddings. Then at the end of the weekend, we would pick up the boys, pick up the book, and I would spend the week reading and perusing the book. Not only did Don fill his book with beautiful stories and desires and gut-wrenching truths, but my dad would leave his own little notes in the margins, these ones just for me. He would underline and circle and draw smiley faces or add little words like “this part … this is just for you, ash.” He read that book during chemo treatments and late at night when the side effects kicked in. I read it on airplanes and during children’s nap times. And chapter by chapter, word by word, it took us on a journey.

One of the chapters in there is about “Meeting Bob” – the first time Don met the incredible Bob Goff. If you know the book, this will be a chapter you have not forgotten. In the chapter, Don talks about Bob and the insanely wonderful man he is, the life he and his family have lived together, the story of how he became the American Consul to Uganda, and how his family’s home became a hosting place for leaders from all over the world. I had had many talks with my dad about the fact that Jeremy and I were feeling stirred in our guts to start a workshop for photographers. But I agonized over it with him. “Dad, I just don’t know what this is supposed to look like. So many workshops out there are so sterile, or all look and feel the same, just with another rockstar photographer telling people how to be like them. we want to be about something better than just ourselves. our workshop has to be different but I don’t know how.” I explained our frustration with the photography industry. So many beautiful and talented souls were living half-hearted, copycat lives because they wanted to be like everyone else, instead of discovering who they actually were meant to be themselves. My dad, as always, would smile and gentle smile, look me in the eyes and say, “That’s okay, baby. You’ll know when you’re supposed to know.” I didn’t know it then but I know it now. Donald’s words in that book were helping my dad prepare to die. And my father’s words in that same book were helping me prepare to live.

Well, death has a way of unveiling confused and tired eyes. My dad ended up living just two weeks shy of one year past his diagnosis. And as I grieved his death, I picked the book – “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” back up again, and read and re-read it all – Donald’s words and my dads. And then I got to the chapter about “Meeting Bob.” I read how Bob and his family invited the world leaders to come to their cabin and have a sleepover – because when people sleep over, you get to know them really well. And they would ask the world leaders what they put their hope in, and everyone would leave agreeing to make the world a better place. I read that and I knew. THIS IS IT. This is what our workshop is supposed to be about. THIS IS THE DON’T GIVE UP PROJECT. Since then, we have given away over one hundred of Don’s books, in three continents and we will give away even more this coming July at the next Don’t Give up project. If you are wondering what this is all about, this is a start.

We are about facing the deep and beautiful realities of life and of death. 
We are about sleepovers and strangers becoming a family tribe.
We are about sharing hope, taking bricks out of backpacks and revolting against the meaningless.
We are about making the world a better place, simply through our little lives, our little stories, our little cameras, and our little beating hearts.

WE ARE the Don’t Give up Project.
Will you join us?
There’s a space at the cabin in the mountains just for you and we will be waiting with open arms.

  • June 3, 2014 - 5:16 pm

    athena - I love your hearts, dear ones, and to any one reading this who is on the fence about attending a DGU I offer you this: Jeremy and Ashley Parsons are exactly who they present themselves as, a trait so rare in today’s world. they are honest and genuine and love with their whole hearts, they whole bodies, and do so in waves. The lodge will change you, but moreso, the people in it will change you. They will seep into your bones like water and fill the spaces you didn’t know were empty.

    You will empty your bag of the bricks you brought with you.
    You will revolt against the meaningless.
    You will know the story you want to write with your life.
    You will be renewed.

    And you will never, not even for an ounce of a moment, be disappointed.


  • June 4, 2014 - 12:32 am

    Jenae - I am Revolting against the meaningless. This project changed my life. One day Ash and Jer we will sit and I will tell you how my story changed and my calling was found.

    I can’t thank you enough for helping to kickstart it all at a little Lodge in the mountains.

    much love-jenaeReplyCancel

  • June 22, 2014 - 1:23 am

    hannah nicole - i have tears in my eyes reading this . . . you two radiate love. Jesus in you. what a blessing to “know” you in even small part over the web (someday, I pray and hope, something more). blessings to you guys. and blessings to this year’s DGUP and all who come. prayers that it would continue to overflow with hope and good, as it has and does. this is a good, needed thing that gives light.ReplyCancel

  • July 25, 2014 - 11:22 pm

    alison holcomb - now that i’ve read this, i’m a weeping mess. followed you guys for a while now, but never dug into what the heart of DGU was. i’m sitting in a cabin in colorado on vacation, and i can’t help but be sad that i missed attending. i WILL be there one day, but in the meantime, i’m praying for the people who have attended and for your hearts & vision & what God is doing through you guys. i love what y’all are about- and yes, this industry needs this.. but it’s so much bigger than that. this post gave me hope for connections with likeminded people who want to live alive and dream big God sized dreams. thank you for the encouragement. hope your week went incredibly. xo.ReplyCancel

  • November 15, 2014 - 7:19 pm

    keri bryant - Parsons — I had no idea that this was the history of the Don’t Give Up projects. What a beautiful, amazing story. Love what you guys do and I dream of getting a taste of your talent someday in the mountains at one of these. Until then, i will keep drooling over your photos and sending your link to friends (and hopefully future clients!!) as i am tointe. And keep hoping my college freshman daughter – and 2 younger girls – are still at LEAST 8 years away from us needing to hire you! :):) East Coast hugs!
    your #1 Connecticut stalker,
    Keri BryantReplyCancel

We are really excited today.

We are exited because, in our experience, it’s really rare to find something in life that you can be a part of, something that you believe in so wholeheartedly and that brings such hope and purpose to you and countless others. And we’ve found it.

The Don’t Give Up project is worth being excited about.

It’s worth the long months of planning, the blood, sweat, and tears that go into writing the curriculum anew for each one. It’s worth the meetings with the chefs to make sure the food will tell just the right story. it’s worth the years of processing through wins and losses in order to pass on our mistakes and our hope to others in need of them. It’s worth the cost and the hours we spend packing suitcases, gift bags, Uhaul trailers and kids and drive the long, windy road up to the lodge. It’s worth the time, the cost, the sacrifice, the butterflies in our stomachs, the fear and the hope. It’s worth it all. Because after all of that is done, people start to arrive. People who were meant to be there with us, all along. People who were meant to eat the meals we grocery shopped for and hear the mistakes we have made. People who needed a long, three day breath of fresh mountain air. People who arrived lonely and left belonging to a tribe. People who had stories of their own that we desperately needed to hear. When we drive back down that mountain, we are completely refreshed, invigorated, and renewed.

it happens every time.

And now, we are asking you to join us.

We want to invite you to come be a part of the tribe. This isn’t an exclusive tribe. To be a part of this tribe you don’t have to be the cool kid. You don’t have to feel ready to go kill it. You don’t have to be full-time photographer of awesomeness, wedding blog famous or on top of your game. You don’t have to have it all together. You just have to be you. Come experience this thing that none of us really know how to put words to, we just know that we go home living differently. Come be brave and scared and real and funny and quiet and hungry and tired and overwhelmed and overworked and broke and rich and everything in between. Just come be yourself with us and a small family of others who are incredibly different than, but so similar to you.

If you are meant to be there, you know it. you will feel the pull on your gut, the stirring inside your chest cavity, your heart rate slowly starting to increase, and a small voice inside you telling you “ok, it’s time.”

let’s do this!


click below to join us!

if you try to join us, but the workshop is already sold out, please fill out the contact form and we will be sure to add you to the mailing list for the next one.

I (ash) met a stranger the other day.
he was walking down my street with a shopping cart. never a good sign around these parts, or at least one that I remain somewhat resistant to or indifferent of on most days.
but this man was different. For starters, he didn’t look filthy or homeless in any way. He was wearing a collared, button up shirt – a dark maroon one with vertical stripes on it – and some pleated business working pants with a belt and everything, and formal loafer type shoes.

ok, mister, you have my attention.

Usually the grocery cart men I see are looking for items in the trash, and usually they break all the rubbish bins open to find aluminum cans and usually they look like hobos. If I’m home alone, I don’t make eye contact and I don’t say hello. But this one was different. He was walking with his shopping cart, or a shopping cart formerly belonging to family dollar (not to be confused with the artist formerly known as prince – I mean, really? dude. not only do you have to have us all call you “Prince” but now you need to be called something “formerly known as”. Ok. Then I’m the mother of three formerly known as a size 2…but I digress)..and I am trying not to make eye contact. I’m home alone.

There’s another stranger out across the street. He’s a skinny old man who has a ritual that we witness every day. I have affectionately started calling him “the skinny old coot”. He wears the same pants every single day – old worn out grey work pants. He comes out in either a light blue western shirt – if it’s cold out or a white tank top and oversized gym shorts – if it’s warm out. Let’s just say it’s a “special treat” if he’s in the summer getup. I still haven’t made peace with the sight. He walks to the end of his driveway looks to the left, looks to the right, looks across the street in the general direction of our house and then talks loudly to the air. He’s got a “borned-n-raised somewhere south of here” drawl and it’s the kind that makes his random words really difficult to make out. Somedays, he mixes the ritual up a little bit. He will take five or ten paces to the left and then come back to the driveway, or he will say a couple of sentences about his observations about life or about “those people. . .”, or he will just find trash around the property and kick it into the street, which is what he did yesterday.

Business attire-grocery cart man is now making his way closer to our property, and he stops right across the street, in the street. He pulls out a broom, a dust pan, and bends down to scoop up the crushed plastic 7-11 cup that the skinny old coot kicked into the street yesterday. He stands up, and drops it into a trash can, which is the other thing he had in that shopping cart. He walks twenty more feet and does the same thing in the gutter in front of our neighbors house. He glances up to our porch, where I am now watching him with the enthusiasm of an eighty seven year old widow turned neighborhood watchdog, and I say “hey there.” He says hello, tells me he hopes I have a great day, and goes on his merry way.

I watched him for another block or so, as he did his work to clean up the city, one piece of garbage at a time. smiling and enjoying the weather the whole way.

Which makes me ask the question: which of these two people am I more like? I remember a day of waking up, getting a shower and getting my breakfast ready so I could jump in the car to go off to work. I didn’t particularly like the work, and I found myself counting down the milliseconds until 5:00 pm each day, but I still got up, showed up, and did what was required of me. When you are self employed and living life under the guise of “impassioned artist” it’s surprising what you (or at least I) let yourself get away with. How many mornings do I stay in bed later than I should? or skip the shower? or throw on my fat pants and the old men’s t-shirt I slept in and then proceed to fill my days – which have enough trouble each to their own – with unscheduled activities that will rob me of my efficiency? Do I go looking around for trouble, spouting my opinions into the air like incoherent midwestern babble, kicking trash around, and then go back into my shell? Am I the old coot? well.. yeah, I guess sometimes I am. But you can only wear that white tank top and those gym shorts for so long before you notice that, although it is fun to live like a crazy/lazy person for a little while, in the end it really bites you in the ass.

So what have we done? We get up, each and every day. We have a rhythm and despite having three kids, a house and tons of to-do’s we stick to that rhythm. We shower. We get dressed. We do our hair. We practice silence and solitude. We brush our teeth (even if it’s just a Skype meeting we are having.). We work during delegated hours and refuse to work during others. We get up, clean up, dress up, and show up every single day because it’s better for us than the alternative.

In the end, it actually doesn’t just feel good but it also pays off to get cleaned up, dressed in the “I am actually a part of the human race” costume, and go get your work done. Just because we are artists dosn’t mean we are the stylish, urban outfitted version of the skinny old coot. Let’s wake up, clean up, dress up, and show up like the garbage man. Because, lest we all forget, he’s the only one in the story with a paycheck. And if he can be that enthusiastic and warm about his lot in life, then I – sitting here on my front porch listening to the birds chirp and typing on a macbook pro to you, fellow artist – I should be, too.

[at the Don't Give Up project, we will not just be talking about our identities and purposes as artists, but finding new ways to live sustainable lives as creatives. if you haven't already signed up, we really hope you will join us! to find out more, click "join the tribe" above.]

We recently had an experience as consumers that made us think a bit deeper about the way we treat the people who hire us. We were in the apple store and bought a new sleeve/case for our laptop. It looked cool, we liked the rugged feel of it, plus we needed something new to put our laptop in while traveling. The price was within budget, under $50, so we bought it and took it home.

I think that we do a fine job in the beginning stages of the photographer / muse relationship. The right people seem to be finding us and enjoy looking at who we are and what we have to offer. We seem to do a good job at the “falling for us” part, too, not because we are trying to “hook ‘em” or trick people into loving us, but because we genuinely love people. We love their stories and we believe that heaven and earth are intersecting in their lives, so we gladly join in to be a part of it. The price isn’t an issue for the people we are supposed to work with. And if it is, we have seen love move mountains to get us there to the big event they feel we must be a part of.

We took the laptop sleeve home and I started to open it so I could begin to use it.

observation #1: Herschel Supply Co., the company who made the sleeve, has made a thick, card stock wrap that goes around the sleeve, with their branding on it, and lovely words about the item I just purchased. It’s important to mention that the cardboard wrapper is discretely glued into one piece, meaning there is no way you are going to remove it in the store. It’s stuck on there pretty tight.

observation #2: The card stock paper makes me feel something. The use of fonts, design and texture is all pleasing to the eye and hand. It feels like quality from the beginning.

observation #3: As I remove the wrapper and unzip the sleeve, I notice it has a lovely leather pull attached to the end of the zipper, a nice, “handmade” embellishment that isn’t necessary, but appreciated.

observation #4: inside there is a foam “place holder” the same width as our computer, showing me how it will perfectly fit. But instead of just having a brand on it, it says “thank you”. Here’s where my heart flutters a little. I just spent money I thought was well worth it on a lovely little sleeve and they are thanking me. For my less than fifty dollars.

observation #5 (also, yowsers, I need a manicure): I remove the “thank you” note and notice one last lovely touch. “Welcome to Herschel”. I didn’t just give them my money. I didn’t just pick up some random item we needed for our business. I just became a part of something. I was welcomed into this club of people owning aesthetically pleasing products by creative artists who like to say thank you.

FINAL OBSERVATION: This company went out of their way to keep giving me an experience of warm fuzzies after I had spent money on them. They knew I wouldn’t see the thank you note or the little extra embellishments if I hadn’t purchased the sleeve. They went the extra mile long after they had my money.

As I’m about to throw it away, I notice on the bottom of the cardboard “wrapper” are six little words and two periods: “Welcome to Herschel. Enjoy your stay.”
Thanks, guys. I will.

What’s the point of all of this rambling? The point is, when is the last time that, after all was said and done – money exchanged, product / photographs / slideshow / prints / albums delivered – you went the extra mile to:

1. say thank you?
2. make your people feel like they were a part of the greater mission of what you are doing?

I honestly have to say that, unfortunately for us and the dear souls we work with, we rarely do either one of those. We get so caught up in the next couple, the next edits, the next deadline, the chaos of life around these parts, and just trying to keep our severed chicken heads somewhere close to our bodies. We forget to go the extra mile. And These dear ones are spending way more than less than fifty dollars on us!

So this is actually a blog post that is unfinished. We don’t have amazing and wonderful advice to give here, rather, we have questions: for those of you exercising gratitude with your people well, what advice and tips and ideas can you offer the rest of us who are floundering? post them in the comments section and we will edit the post and add them for us all to see and ponder.

don’t be shy! we are really looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

  • April 17, 2014 - 2:55 pm

    Steve Dalgetty - This is a GREAT thing to think about and something that we talk about a lot. I often feel hypocritical selling ourselves on a relationship-driven approach, knowing we rock that when we’re selling, and then knowing how hard it is to put the time into keeping that going with some level of consistency to the wedding or beyond. One little thing we started doing is celebrating anniversaries. A big part of our conversation is that the wedding is simply a celebration of day 1 of marriage, and the marriage is what’s important and what we’re actually celebrating/documenting. So we started sending out cards for the first anniversary for each couple. It’s simple, doesn’t take a lot of time, and I think it goes a long ways. Same with thank you cards. I feel like anything that gets out of email goes a long ways these days.ReplyCancel

  • April 17, 2014 - 4:11 pm

    Anne Hannah - When we bought our rental houses 3 years ago, we committed ourselves to not being those landlords that always only do the minimum. We’d seen enough bad examples of these and experienced the effects of this mentality on our city and the neighborhoods we lived in. We didn’t want to be slumlords.

    About 2 years ago we decided to shift our business to incorporate rent-to-own or owner financing with the goal of finding people that might not qualify for conventional financing due to personal factors or limited accessibility due to the struggling economy. Our goal was to provide an avenue for people in the city, and create a sense of ownership and dignity by allowing them to buy houses instead of perpetually renting. People who own houses inherently think differently about their house and their neighborhood. They care for it differently. They are personally invested, something our city desperately needs in the urban core.

    Maybe you’re wondering what this has to do with your question.

    When we screen and interview potential buyers, within the first few interactions, we always bring them into what we do… our greater vision for them and the house they are buying. We always tell them that our goal is to find people to buy our houses that will take care of them, enjoy them and be an asset to the neighborhood they’re in.
    And even after we sell the house to them, we stay in contact to see how they are doing. We offer them our resources and connections to help them stay in their house and manage the maintenance themselves, without overpaying needlessly.

    Even though God is calling us to something else, and we own relatively few houses, this approach has been immensely rewarding for us, and we see God’s sovereignty in how our business has developed over the years. He is on mission in the world, and we are privileged to have a part in that.ReplyCancel

  • April 17, 2014 - 10:45 pm

    nathan - We send happy anniversary cards on their 1 year anniversary too. We get a lot of emails back at how unexpected and nice it was. Another thing we do is stuff we include with our packaging. Among the various details, we include a second thank you card, for allowing us to a part of their celebration (we send the first one when they book), and a set of 15-20 postcards that are custom printed with our favorite images from their wedding day. Our hope is that it’s a lovely little surprise when they open the box. It’s in the guise of a gift- postcards that they could send in the mail if they want to, but we hope they keep them, and just look through them from time to time.

    It’s a small thing, but like you mention above, I think little details like that really send a message that you’ve put a lot of thought and care into what you’re doing, and make what you’re doing feel personal.ReplyCancel

  • April 18, 2014 - 10:07 pm

    Megan Gielow - I love this post! I think it’s easy to send gifts to our couples, but the more difficult thing is to keep it genuine and significant (and, of course within the budget). After my couples book, I give them a little notebook that I’ve decorated along with a note and “magazine/pamphlet” that invites them to make this more than photos…it’s about becoming friends and getting to know each other. The notebook is significant because it’s something I used a lot when I was engaged for dreaming/reflecting/sketching/etc. I also try to keep up with them via social media and send a small something for Christmas and anniversaries just to know that I still care. We’re helping celebrate a lifetime of love in one short wedding day. I truly enjoy getting to keep up with my new friends as time passes :) ReplyCancel

  • April 21, 2014 - 7:46 pm

    jenn stark - ahhhhhh just bought a herschel backpack and felt the exact same way!! i never want to take it off my back these days. yes. there is a whole lot of value to feeling like we are appreciated & that we mean something.ReplyCancel

  • April 27, 2014 - 4:33 pm

    Emilie - Oh you’ve nailed it again. What a thoughtful post. Thank YOU for the reminder.ReplyCancel

  • May 9, 2014 - 3:32 pm

    jerashparsons - thank you to all of you for your comments above! it is so wonderful and helpful to hear from those of you going the extra mile and to be able to draw inspiration and encouragement from your hard, hard work. well done doing what you do!!
    xo the parsonsReplyCancel