It will break your heart. Smiling or clowning or anxious, they're beautiful children all, looking carefully into the camera, hopeful for their forever family. They're older children, children of color or mixed race, children with disabilities, and sibling groups. They're in the Heart Gallery of Oregon and are children who are legally freed from their families, waiting for adoption.
The Oregon Department of Human Services says that since 1997, more than 900 children have entered state custody every year and in 2006 (the latest published report), that number reached 1,056. The good news is that at least in 2006, DHS finalized 1,095 adoptions. Most of the children who are adopted are infants and small children, and the bad news is it's the older children who are hard to place, living in a series of foster homes, waiting for parents to choose them.
The Heart Gallery of Oregon is part of a national initiative to help match older children in foster homes with adoptive families. Volunteer photographers capture the shining eyes and warm smiles of the children, and these portraits along with the children's stories become part of the Heart Gallery of Oregon website, and also a traveling exhibit. Almost three quarters of the children featured in Heart Galleries have found their forever families.
The Heart Gallery of Oregon exhibit at the Rogue Valley Mall will be up through November 7.
You can also visit the Gallery online at www.heartgalleryoregon.org. You can reach Deborah Collins, Adoption Certifier with the State of Oregon, DHS Jackson County at 541-864-8710 or Deborah.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two years ago, Gena Kesler of Medford and her husband Mark decided that after raising five kids they were ready to adopt, and that they wanted an older child. "The need is unbelievable — if you could read some of the statistics, you'd drop dead," Gena says. They took training to become adoption-certified and found a 6-year-old boy in foster care who they thought would fit their family.
One of the reasons the Keslers chose an older child is because they didn't want to deal with diapers again. But there were other reasons, too. "They [the older child] can explain their feelings. When they're really little they can't articulate yet," explains Gena. "I love those older children. It's just an age I like. They have a lot to offer and they're interesting."
"Those children, who are older, sometimes present big challenges for the families. The families can be involved in a lot of services to support the child," says Deborah Collins, Adoption Certifier with the Oregon State Department of Human Services in Jackson County. "Children might have learning disabilities, developmental delays, physical problems or medical issues," Collins continues. "They might have some psychological issues needing counseling."
Gena knew it wouldn't be easy, but even the adoption training classes and her extensive research didn't prepare her for what was to come. Her 6-year-old adopted son was very, very angry when he first came to live with the family. "He was angry about everybody and everything. We were his eighth home. And when you're tossed around like that you lose security," Gena says. "When you don't have trust in a relationship, that's the hardest thing to build."
"Families who are willing to adopt any child, particularly an older child, need to accept the child for who they are, helping them grow into successful competent adults," says Collins. "They need to accept and understand that child's sense of loss and need to heal. They need to be persistent and strong advocates for those children." It took two years of patient, consistent love and a loving routine for the Kesler's new son to accept his adoptive family. It also took hours and hours of counseling to help their son to feel safe and secure.
"I see huge successes every day with the families I've worked with. I see children who might initially have been very angry, who have blossomed and thrived," says Collins. "Tantrums are fewer and shorter. They're settling into their families and becoming attached. I see children who are successful in school and in sports — who are happy and comfortable in their families."
Two years ago, Gena and Mark found they had room in their home and room in their hearts to begin a new family. The adoption of their son was finalized in October. This summer the Keslers found two more children to adopt — two young girls, sisters. "We got three new awesome members of our family," Gena smiles. "They're very, very loving children, and so wanting to be loved."
Adoption, especially of an older child, is an act of faith, of love, of service. Deborah Collins sees these acts every day, "I learn so much from the families I work with. I think they work miracles."