Fōstor, from Old English, means “nourishment.” And what better word for the profound role that compassionate foster care can provide for children?
Yet no matter how well foster care may nourish their growth and needs, most children hunger for a family. Unfortunately, every year children ready for adoption from the foster care system linger; whether housed in a group home or with foster parents unable to adopt, these children are often older, part of a large sibling group or have physical or therapeutic needs that require special care. That’s where Tampa’s Heart Gallery steps in, to feed their dreams with action.
Based on a national model that started in New Mexico in 2001, by careworker Diane Granito, professional photographers and videographers volunteer their time, and talents, to celebrate the children’s potential. The story of the kids—their joys and hopes—become part of the “gallery”
featuring the photos, videos and recorded speeches from the Tampa foster care children available for adoption. The gallery is displayed in local businesses or churches and community hubs like Tampa International Airport or the University of South Florida campus, it’s a portable exhibition that can be creatively adapted to any space.
As Lindsay Hermida, program director of Heart Gallery says, “We want the community to know these kids are just like any other kids. They go to school with your kids, they go to church with your family, they live in your neighborhood. The only difference is they just don’t have a family of their own. Our main goal is to raise awareness of our kids.”
“The kids know what the Heart Gallery means,” she adds, “and that they’ll be putting themselves out there. Some of their friends may see their pictures at the mall. But their desire for a family outweighs any fears that they have, embarrassment or shame. All of the kids, age-appropriate, agree to be showcased in the Heart Gallery.”
Although helping to unite a forever family is an obvious goal, bringing the children to the center of attention is equally important. The success of Tampa’s Heart Gallery—foster children in the Gallery are three times more likely to be adopted—comes down to community engagement on a much wider level than just the potential adopters.
Hermida, who spent six years working in Florida’s foster care system as a case manager before moving to the Heart Gallery, says, “we are all responsible in one way or another. So many of these kids lose their childhood. They’re forced to grow up really quickly, and they’ve experienced things we can’t even fathom. Some of their experiences would stop you in your tracks. Not everyone can adopt but providing these kids with a little bit of normal is enormous.”
Hermida is talking about the Heart Gallery’s Quality of Life program. Donations to it provide all of Heart Gallery’s children with a wide range of opportunities to complement the care they receive from the state, like requested birthday and holiday presents, the extras of school life that help a teen belong, like prom tickets or a school yearbook, music lessons or club fees for sport.
Hermida says spreading the word among the community is key to Heart Gallery’s success. Businesses can host a birthday tree, for example, where customers or staff can take a card and contribute specifically to a child’s special day. Individuals can volunteer with a range of opportunities from shopping for gifts to helping out in the office.
Hermida adds the timing is perfect, with November as National Adoption Month. “Just like every [nonprofit organization] this year, our donations are down. The majority of what we do involves being out in the community, hosting events, speaking engagements, touring our exhibits. We haven’t been able to do any of that since February. It’s been a huge challenge, relying heavily on our social media pathways. We’re starting a big push from Nov. 1 to get ready for our holiday giving season.”
Replenishing the Quality of Life program is a priority, but by liking Heart Gallery on social media, everyone can lend a hand.
“Sharing our posts allows us to constantly reach new people, spreading the word as much as possible. And it works. A few years ago, one of our kids, Mario, was approaching adulthood after being in care almost his whole life. We did a massive social media push — let’s find Mario a family. It was shared over 700 times, reached 70,000 people, and he was adopted on his 18th birthday,” Hermida says.
The many success stories of the Heart Gallery continually inspire Hermida and her team to find creative ways to showcase the kids even with the added challenges of the pandemic. Last year they helped more than 84 children and this year they are supporting 104 children.
“Our kids are each so different,” Hermida says. “They need different kinds of parents. All of our kids are special and unique, and we are just looking to find parents who can meet the needs of our kids and give them the safety and love they deserve.”
For more on the Heart Gallery, visit www.heartgallerytampa.org.