Rita Priore watched with amazement as the tiny child just off a flight from India walked self-assuredly toward her new American family.
The St. Petersburg woman, her husband, Paul, and 11-year-old daughter, Anna, had waited almost half a dozen years for this moment.
They'd completed paperwork — again and again. Gazed at photographs. Furnished a nursery with a pink crib, pink sheets, pink dresser, pink everything. After two years of waiting, they packed it all away. Friends, meaning well, suggested trying to adopt closer to home. But the family persevered, and on July 16, the little girl they'd named Natalie — after Rita Priore's mother — eventually arrived home.
For Wendy Rivera, the wait wasn't as long and agonizing. She hadn't set out to adopt siblings. Josh arrived first, as a foster child. When he said he hadn't seen his sister in more than a year, Rivera decided to set things right. It also happened that caseworkers were searching for a new foster home for Mikaila.
Two weeks before Christmas, the brother and sister were reunited. Rivera adopted them last year in a courtroom crammed with family and friends.
Hallmark moments aside, adoption can bring challenges, from bureaucratic hurdles to racial and cultural issues. Those who promote adoptions from Florida's foster care program say, however, that the process is simpler than private and international adoptions and free to prospective parents. Further, they say, it comes with many benefits for parents and children.
Still, agencies trying to find homes for African-American children, older children and those with mental and developmental needs can find it difficult to make placements. "Most people, because of what we are taught, want to adopt babies or very young children, so there's a learning hurdle that we need to clear for these kids,'' said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national organization based in New York.
"And many people, instinctively, because nobody wants to complicate their lives, would prefer a healthy child. So there are not lines around the block. We have not put in enough resources to educate people, to recruit them ... and support them,'' he said. "It is all about finding homes for children who need them and less about finding kids for parents who want them.''
Gulf Coast Community Care in Pinellas County works to find families for foster children ages 6 to 18.
"The biggest thing is we need strong families,'' said program director Terri Balliet. "We really need people who are in for the long haul.''
That message is also being conveyed this week — timed for National Adoption Month — by the Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco's Ephesians Project. An independent, charitable organization, the Heart Gallery promotes public adoptions and showcases portraits of local foster children available for adoption. The Ephesians Project focuses on African-American children.
"We're hoping that a lot more families will step up and walk the path to adoption,'' Heart Gallery president Heidi Akers said.
It's a matter of getting the word out, said April Putzulu of Eckerd Youth Alternatives, the lead agency for public adoptions in Pinellas County.
"I am passionate that every child deserves a loving family, and I truly believe that there are no unwanted children — just unfound families,'' she said in an e-mail.
For Rivera, adopting has been "one of the greatest things'' that has ever happened to her. An apartment manager in north Pinellas County, she decided to become a foster mother after her biological sons, Jeremy, 22, and Forrest, 18, left home. Jeremy's in Afghanistan and Forrest attends college in Kansas.
Josh arrived on Dec. 1, 2006. "When he first came, he was scared. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. He said, 'I'm supposed to get to visit my sister.' ''
He hadn't seen her in a year.
"My heart broke,'' Rivera said. "Having them together is truly a miracle.''
This month, Rivera, 42, will expand her family again by adopting a 6-year-old girl.
Rita Priore, 46, started thinking of adoption in summer 2003. She waited until after Christmas to seriously discuss the idea with her husband, music pastor at Park Place Wesleyan Church in Pinellas Park and producer of the congregation's lavish holiday productions.
On Feb. 4, 2004, they committed to Natalie's adoption. She was 5 months old. Anna, the Priores' biological daughter, was 5.
Natalie — her Indian name was Geetha — should have been home by the end of 2004, but a series of bureaucratic glitches stalled the process.
In July, Natalie's family flew to meet her at Newark Liberty International Airport.
"I got to hug her first,'' big sister Anna said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.