Monday, December 18, 2017
Opinion

Column: Heart Gallery brings hope

November is National Adoption month, and this year we are in the midst of one of the most promising times for the thousands of children searching for families in Florida and across the United States.

The explosion of digital and social media has allowed children, whose parental rights have been terminated and are available for adoption, to advocate for themselves through a photograph, video spot or audio clip.

The children come alive and prospective families can go to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or heartgalleryofamerica.org and find some of the most precious and beautiful children searching for a permanent home.

A phenomenon occurred about 10 years ago when Diane Granito of New Mexico started working with a photographer taking professional pictures of children, capturing the child's "character and spirit" and replacing the small black-and-white photos used in yearbooks in past years.

When potential parents of children available for adoption saw the pictures, which are displayed on Heart Gallery websites, they formed an emotional attachment with the child's photos, visualizing them in their family. Our studies have shown that as a result, adoptions have increased by about 25 percent in areas where a Heart Gallery is present.

In so many cases, a Heart Gallery photograph is the first-ever quality picture of the child. The photographers, who volunteer their talent and equipment, have to quickly establish a relationship with the child. Without that special connection, the photographer cannot properly capture the child's unique charisma and spirit. Part of the commitment the Heart Gallery makes to each child is to continue to photograph him/her every year until they are united with a permanent family.

At each adoption ceremony, we give the child and family the Heart Gallery photograph. The children show real courage, being photographed each year not knowing if this will be the picture that captures the attention of a person or family willing to adopt them. Unfortunately, we have had situations where the child doesn't get adopted, and it is heartbreaking to review their photos from when they were 6 years old, and now they are 18 and going into the world alone.

Recently, in Pinellas County a young man named Davion made a plea for a family in front of his church congregation. Davion, who is now 15, has been part of the Heart Gallery in Pinellas since he was 7. Tampa Bay Times staffer Lane DeGregory wrote about Davion, and her story went viral and was covered by all the major news outlets nationwide.

As a result of the media coverage and Davion's desperate plea, potential adoptive parents resonated with his situation. It's desperate because if children don't get adopted, they age-out (meaning they are no longer taken care of by the state and are on their own). Aging-out can have tragic results; without accountability, guidance and love, it can sometimes be a path to prison, drug addiction, rage and other negative outcomes.

Across Florida, there are 15 Heart Galleries working with each Department of Children and Families district. Across the United States, there are more than 100 Heart Galleries working with more than 6,000 photographers who donate their time leading to more than 5,000 adoptions per year. Please contact your local Heart Gallery and get involved with foster care, adoption, mentoring or to provide other support for children who await a permanent loving forever family.

Matthew Straeb, the volunteer co-founder of the Heart Gallery of America, lives in Sarasota. He wrote this for the Tampa Bay Times.

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