Portraits of hope

At the Heart Gallery, forgotten kids are brought into the light to find them loving homes.


Some faces in the Heart Gallery beg you to remember them. Others dare you to. Some splash you with humor and affection. Others are guardedly hopeful, as if the subjects had chosen to be optimistic against their better judgment.

In the end, each photo asks the same questions: Could you love me? Could you take care of me? Could you be my parent?

The Heart Gallery, an exhibition of portraits of Maryland's hard-to-adopt children that opens Friday at Villa Julie College in Stevenson, is a new approach to finding them permanent homes. The 58 children whose photographs are displayed are mostly older. Some are part of a sibling group. Others have medical or developmental problems. They are living in foster homes around the state and Baltimore City.

The show also presents the work of 51 professional photographers who donated their time and materials to take sensitive and artistic portraits of these often-overlooked children.

"Nobody looks human from a mug shot," says photographer and project coordinator Jennifer Bishop. "Would you get adopted from the picture on your driver's license? This project is about making these children human - people we can all relate to.

"This show is not about making children appear to be something they're not, but about finding out who they actually are - and then figuring out how to make that seen and felt."

Bishop was inspired to organize a Heart Gallery when she read about the success of the first one, organized in Santa Fe in 2001 by Diane Granito, foster and adoptive parent coordinator for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

Since that time, more than 300 children have been placed permanently in homes across the nation through Heart Galleries in various states. This is the first to be held in Maryland.

"It's a grass-roots movement that depends almost exclusively on the support of community members and volunteers," Granito says. "These kids have been kept in the shadows for so many years, and these talented photographers are now helping them step into the light where people can see them.

"These children can advocate for themselves if they're given a chance, but they need our help to let people know they're out there."

For the exhibition, case workers and adoption managers selected candidates from 131 children around Maryland who are legally free and need adoptive homes, according to Stephanie Pettaway, adoption program manager for the state's Department of Human Resources.

"Other states that have had a Heart Gallery have found homes for at least 50 percent of the children they have," she says. "Forty-two of the children in this exhibit are aged 9 or older. Around the country, those are the children we are working hardest to get homes for."

The text accompanying each photograph lists only the child's first name and gives no identifying information. People who are interested in learning more about a particular child for potential adoption must contact the state.

"Some people have asked whether this is `marketing' children," Bishop says. "What we're doing is marketing the concept of adopting from foster care. We're hoping that people will consider this option in a way they hadn't before."

Attorney Susan Leviton, who runs a children's law clinic at the University of Maryland, applauds the program.

"I have always thought that kids in the foster-care system are voiceless and choiceless. This is giving them a face - and a way of expressing themselves."

The participating photographers, coordinated by artist representative Timmi Wolff, were attracted to the project for many reasons. For Nancy Kavanagh O'Neill, who grew up with eight siblings in a close-knit family, it was a "chance to connect with children who belong to no one" and to "shine a light on a new piece of humanity."

Michelle Gienow says that becoming a mother "opens your heart to all children. ... You want every child in the world to have that safe, secure family to love them."

Sam Holden photographed a pair of brothers in part because he wanted to be "part of a group effort to help kids who need help ... to give something without expecting any return."

Kristin Becker felt compelled by her own parents' decision to adopt two children, both of whom were HIV-positive.

"Today their biggest `troubles' consist of, `Why can't I be on the Internet after 9 p.m.?' and `I don't want to do my homework.' ... I know what a big difference the love of a nurturing family makes."


If you go

The Heart Gallery opening night is Friday from 6 to 9. It will be on display in the St. Paul Companies Pavilion at Villa Julie, 1525 Greenspring Valley Road, through Jan. 31. Call 410-486-7000 or go online to vjc.edu.

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