For one couple, a long-sought option
The young faces, each with a certain longing in the eyes behind those bright smiles, somehow look out from the wall and reach straight for your heart.
No one is sure why it works, but this "Heart Gallery" does work, and no one leaves it quite the same as they came in.
This month, the Witter Gallery in Storm Lake became the second location in Iowa to host the new art exhibit, made up entirely of creative portraits of Iowa children waiting for foster homes or adoptive parents.
"I want a family that will hang in there with me," says Brad, a freckly-faced 13-year-old who loves to horseback ride.
"Having a 'forever family' is what adoption means to me," says Elizabeth, a 16-year-old with dark, expressive eyes and a ready smile, and passions from music to basketball.
The Heart Gallery exhibit is the brainchild of KidSake, which is funded by the Iowa Department of Human Services and run through the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association. The idea was borrowed from other states, where it was found that images of such children can be powerful tools for awareness.
And so it has seemed since the exhibit debuted at Witter Gallery earlier this month.
"We have had a really good response from the Heart Gallery," said Crystal Thomason, KidSake recruiting coordinator, at an open house for the exhibit held over the weekend in Storm Lake.
"We have gotten quite a few calls, either from people who have gone to see the exhibit or have heard about it in the local news. There seems to be quite an interest from Storm Lake in the need for foster and adoptive parents," she said.
One couple who came to see the photos explained that they have tried to conceive a child for a long time, and have not been able to. They had looked into adoption agencies and international adoption, but had not been able to cut through the confusing channels and daunting red tape.
"So they came to us at the exhibit to find out more about the kids here in Iowa who are waiting for adoption," Thomason said.
Most Iowans are not yet aware that KidSake is here to match families with children awaiting adoption. Many of the children are older, or come from within foster care situations, or may be special needs kids - not the infants that some picture when they think of adoption.
"So many people don't realize that we have all of these children right here in Iowa who need a home... even the staff at Witter Gallery hadn't heard of this program before we arranged this show," Thomason said. "People think adoption and they may think that the only way to go today is an international adoption - so it is clear that we need more awareness and education."
While the need remains great, adoption is working. The number of successful adoptions has risen dramatically from less than 200 in Iowa in 1994 to 1,077 in 2004 - and often, families that start out offering foster home care are the ones to fall in love with a child and pursue adoption.
Two of the children featured in the exhibit - intelligent and sensitive science lover David, and bright-eyed camping enthusiast David, have already found new homes since Heart Gallery started this season. A couple of the other kids on those walls now have prospects - although a child is not considered to be fully placed until they have been in the new home successfully for at least six months.
At the Witter open house, a few local women who have been adoptive and foster parents came out, in some cases with their children, to share their experience with others who might be interested in bringing a child into their home.
"It takes a very loving person, a patient person, often someone with experience being around children, and with good support from their own family and those around them," Thomason said of the successful adopting parent.
"There is sometimes fear of adopting the older child, and taking on what may have happened to them in the past, but people have to understand the need that is there," Thomason added. "Everyone needs a family, and not just for a few years or until a child turns 18. This is an all-your-life need for each of us, a forever decision. There are going to be rough times, just like there are with any child, but these are children that desperately want to be adopted, they are out there and they are waiting for someone."
It takes time to build trust with a child who may have passed through a series of foster homes. "All they really need is someone who will be there beside them, come thick or thin."
* Editor's note: The Heart Gallery exhibit continues until the end of the month at the Witter. For more information on adoptive parenting and foster parenting options, call KidSake at 1-800-243-0756.