It's a place not many get to see: A specialized unit at BC Women's Hospital that helped more than 150 women and babies last year alone.

The mothers who visit the unit are facing difficult challenges, but one dedicated volunteer is trying to show there's more to their experience than their addictions.

Photography began as a hobby for Noel MacDonald. As an outreach worker on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, he began taking the portraits that eventually led him to BC Women's.

He said he immediately fell in love with the mothers and the team of doctors and nurses and committed to continuing the project.

"That was eight years and 500 babies ago," he told CTV News.

Now he volunteers his skills at the Fir Square Combined Maternity Care Unit, where the hospital operates an in-patient program treating substance-addicted women and their babies. The program helps women and newborns stabilize and withdraw from substances, and aims to keep babies and their mothers together when possible.

"It's a pretty great place. It really is," Noel said.

The unit is the first of its kind in Canada, the hospital says. It provides care and support from pregnancy on to transitioning back into the community after giving birth.

Services include alcohol and drug counselling, referrals to community services, assistance with finding housing, parenting groups, therapy and spiritual care.

Having spent years working on the streets, Noel said he has some understanding of how difficult it is to step away from substances, to acknowledge it as a disease and to ask for help.

The women who pass through the program are facing challenges, but Noel sees them for more than their addictions.

"First and foremost, they're moms who love their babies. They come with particular baggage that gets in the way sometimes of people understanding how much they love their babies," Noel said.

"I have some sense of how strong these moms have to be. They are incredibly powerful women."

Noel provides the good memories he's captured on camera to the struggling mothers at no cost.

"It means a lot, especially for someone like myself who is unable to afford actual professional pictures… They're very sentimental," a mother named Sasha said after a photoshoot with her new daughter Saharra.

"He always makes the baby smile somehow," she laughed.

Another mother, Justine, said she was feeling hopeful about her new life with baby Trinity.

"I want her to do good. Just… not follow my footsteps. Just do better," Justine said.

Not knowing exactly what the women have faced in their past, Noel is respectful and conscious of boundaries some women may have when he does his photoshoots. He always asks before touching the moms or their babies to move them into place.

"For some of the women who come in here, they've never been asked if they can be touched. That's just so unnerving to me," he said.

Noel said he tries to create a space that feels safe for families to come together, and has done photoshoots that involve grandparents as well.

When asked what it is he hopes to capture with his photos, Noel said, "It's really about love. It's all about that."

But he also hopes to capture joy and lightheartedness.

"This is my happy place."

The real stories aren't as simple as they appear in photos, but those moments and what they capture are worth hanging on to.

"I think it's about affirmation and saying to these women: You have value."