A fun way to get acquainted: Adopters, children enjoy picnic

July 15, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Youngsters and grown-ups, talking and laughing, playing games, eating hot dogs and drinking lemonade -- the idyll of a summer afternoon.

More than 200 people gathered yesterday in the woods of Patapsco Valley State Park in Carroll County in what easily could have passed as an elementary school, church or company social. The children ran around the McKeldin picnic area, ignoring all heat and humidity, as the adults, lacking that immunity to discomfort, were content to supervise.

But this was no casual encounter. It was the matchmaking of families, the initial contact between dozens of men and women willing to adopt with 49 boys and girls who are in need of homes.

"I'm a little nervous," confessed Karla Fletcher, a switchboard operator from Glen Burnie. She and her husband, Anthony, were looking for their first child. "We need to sit here and calm down for a while."

It was the kind of day that can cause a heart to flutter. A couple from Woodlawn, Crystal and Bruce Jerry, were quickly approached by a trio of unattached children, ages 3, 4 and 5, who just wanted to sit next to them while they ate lunch.

Kenny Baldwin, a shy third-grader from Glen Burnie, spent the afternoon looking for a potential brother. His mother, Claudia, wants to adopt a son -- one year older or one year younger -- so that Kenny will have a playmate.

"I'm looking for whoever he plays with, or gets along with. That will be fine by me," said Ms. Baldwin.

Everyone wore name tags including Lamar Taylor, a canny 8-year-old given to crossing his eyes or imitating flatulence to get attention from adults. But he seemed unaware of the significance of the day.

Abandoned at age 2, Lamar has lived in four foster homes. Although playful and affectionate, he had difficulty understanding how his life might be changed by meeting some strangers at a picnic.

"Lamar is a beautiful little boy," said Kim Horsley, a city social worker who accompanied him. "I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to take him in."

A tradition that began six years ago, the annual picnic is held by "One Church, One Child," a program sponsored by the state Department of Human Resources. The gathering is the biggest of its kind in Maryland.

While most adoptive parents meet their prospective sons or daughters in the traditional one-on-one encounter, events like a picnic are seen as a way to jump-start the often time-consuming process of finding good matches.

Perhaps as many as 30 children will ultimately be adopted by someone they met for the first time yesterday, said Mildred Gee, the program's director. Statewide, there were 402 public agency adoptions last year.

"This is probably the most viable method available to get interested families and children together in such a large forum," said Ms. Gee.

The uninitiated may find the concept of showcasing children at a picnic crass -- or worse. Cassandra Fallin, DHR's adoption manager, thought it was "terrible" when she first heard of the idea. A bit too much like window-shopping, she thought.

What she discovered was that the youngsters enjoyed the fun and most were oblivious to the circumstances. Adults liked the more natural atmosphere and the opportunity for interaction with children, social workers, and others considering adoption.

"The most important thing," Ms. Fallin said, "is that it works."

Human Resources Secretary Alvin C. Collins said his agency needs more programs like "One Church, One Child" to handle the growing number of children available for adoption, particularly in Baltimore. The program was begun to get black churches to persuade at least one member of each congregation to adopt one child.

"It's difficult to attract the families we need," said Mr. Collins. "What these kids need is some permanency in their lives."

Through no fault of their own, the children are not the ideal adoption candidates. Most are between ages 5 and 10, far older than the infants most couples want. Many have survived abuse and neglect and have spent years in foster homes. It is not uncommon for them to have behavioral or emotional problems stemming from their past.

"Being left in uncertainty year after year contributes to a kid's problems and makes it tougher to find the right family for them," Ms. Fallin said. "After age 6, it just becomes a lot harder."

Whatever the psychic scars, they are invisible to the casual observer, and many of the children appear outgoing and cheerful.

Last year, city residents Claudette and Samuel Barnes met a little girl at the picnic who became so attached to them that she cried when they left.

This year, 4-year old Myesha was back -- as a member of the Barnes family. The adoption is expected to be made final in September.

"It's a moral issue," said Crystal Jerry, a day care director from Woodlawn who was looking for a son, maybe two. "There are so many children in the world. Why shouldn't they have a family?"

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