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Friday, July 11, 2014

Lessons on Adoption and Foster Care I’ll Never Forget
By: Julia Venable, Heart Gallery AmeriCorps Member

If you would have spoken with me in 2012 about my career goals, experience involving adoption and/or foster care would have been low on my list—probably not even on my radar.  I was naïve.  I was naïve in thinking that foster care was an entity with little connections to me and my future goals. For this reason, I am eternally grateful for the YWCA AmeriCorps program for leading me to Heart Gallery Alabama and EMPOWER at the University of South Carolina for leading me to AmeriCorps. 

My experience at Heart Gallery has broadened my worldview.  Before coming to HGA, I knew little about foster care and adoption, and what I thought I knew had been shaped by others comments rather than my own research/experience. 
  1. I thought most children in foster care had lost their parents because of death.  The reality is more heartbreaking and hard to understand than I ever imagined.  I am continually inspired by the children we serve as they show great resilience and coping through the unfairness and betrayal they have experienced. 
  2. I thought the goal of foster care was to separate families.  This is a hard one for some families to understand.  While there are over 5,000 children in foster care in Alabama and almost 400,000 worldwide, and the primary goal of foster care is to unite children back with their families.
  3. I thought all children are adopted if parental rights are terminated.  It seems like so many families want to adopt, so how could this not be true?  Well, in Alabama children can decide not to be adopted at age 14.  Unfortunately, not all children in foster care are adopted, and sometimes they have given up hope or lost trust in the adults around them.   An organization called the Camellia Network was created to support children who aged out of foster care or were in care when they were 17.  You can create a page similar to Facebook to support the youth to reach their goals. 
  4. I thought adoption was a fairy tale ending.  Adopting and fostering is hard work, and I admire the families who commit to caring for the children.  The reality is that a fairy tale ending may be happily ever after—but there will still be some hard times and bad days.  Children in foster care have experienced traumatic experiences—experiences that don’t just go away with the signing of adoption papers.  I recently read the book The Connected Child that shares ways to hopefully get through the tough times to build a bond of love, acceptance, and trust.

It is easy to look at these lessons and feel overwhelmed, but I try to take what I’ve learned as fuel to continue to keep advocating, donating, and maybe even one day adopting or fostering.  Adoption and foster care affects all of us, whether directly or indirectly, and there is always a way that people can help. 

What are some myths you believed about foster care and adoption?  What are some organizations you support that help children and youth in foster care and/or adoptive families?  We’d love to hear from you!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Heart Gallery Alabama Helps Create "Forever Families"

By: Alexis E. Barton, Heart Gallery Alabama Guest Blogger

Many of us are accustomed to viewing photo albums, home videos or digital slideshows to reminisce about family members and the milestones of days past. We treasure photographs of ancestors, searching for similar noses or hair lines. But what if you had the opportunity to choose your family, just by viewing a gallery of photographs and video interviews? Would a picture be worth a thousand words?

The Heart Gallery ofAlabama (HGA) is a nonprofit foundation which seeks to place foster children into "forever families." Its website notes "there are over 5000 children in foster care in the state of Alabama. Of these, 500 are available for adoption." The Gallery uses professional photographs and video interviews to capture the essence of each child or sibling group's unique personality: a mischievous grin (or shy smile), a thoughtful pose and earnest responses convey each child's hopes for a permanent home and family. Photographs of featured children are available online, and a mobile exhibit travels throughout the state. (An exhibit is currently on display at the Riverchase Galleria through June 30.)

This Sunday, the HeartGallery celebrates Father's Day with a Birmingham Barons game at Regions Field and a gathering on the Party Deck. The first pitch will be thrown by Jessica, 15 - who along with her sister Sophia, 8 - was adopted by Joyce Shibilia of Pell City last April. Joyce shared her family's adoption experience and the impact of the Heart Gallery with me. The Shibilias also have three sons: Daniel, Nico and Tony (ages 27, 10 and 8 respectively).

What made you consider adoption, and how did the HGA help you find your children? We've been fostering through the Alabama Baptist Children's Home for several years and intended to only foster. Then after you send a few children home and your heart gets involved you say, "The next one I'm keeping." We were approved for adoption, and the HGA was recommended to us. We wanted just one girl, and I prayed and prayed about it. You look at the Heart Gallery out of curiosity - you look at all the children and your heart breaks for all of them. I asked the Lord to fill my heart with enough love for more than one child. I kept coming back to those girls and I said "Okay, you can't argue with that."

What made you gravitate toward older children, rather than a newborn or infant? I bond better with older kids. You have your same challenges with babies as you do with older children, because they still grow up and face those same questions [regarding their biological origins], no matter how old they are when you adopt them. People may think they are avoiding certain challenges by adopting babies, but they really aren't. I feel almost like if they come later in life they've already looked at some of those challenges. The pain they go through is periodic and you just have to accept that.

What other challenges have you faced so far? A lot of children who come from foster homes come from hard situations. We struggled with that fear. But when the girls came to visit, they belonged. Our children play together like they've always been together, and it's amazing to see. I've heard so many horror stories and you have these fears, but I just had to put it in the Lord's hands. [The family is adjusting to a language barrier and academic challenges as well, and their school system's assistance has been a big help, Mrs. Shibilia notes.]

Jessica did not want to talk about any feelings she had when she first came, and we'd give her that space. It's important to understand they may not be able to verbalize their feelings, or they're afraid you won't accept or love them anymore if they do. They need to see that the love is not going away, that you're in it for the long run and are going to put in the time.

What's been the most rewarding part of being Jessica and Sophia's mother so far? It really is just a blessing to feel that connection. When you walk in a room and one of them walks up, gives you a hug and a kiss and says "I love you" - what more can you ask for? It amazes me, what a child can go through and still love and be loved.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My Journey Into the World of Adoption

By: Joycelyn Haywood, Marketing & Communications Manager

When I first took this job at Heart Gallery Alabama, I had no idea what to expect. I knew a little bit about the organization but nothing prepared me for how my life would be touched.

We’ve all heard the foster care horror stories but rarely do we hear the success stories. The perception of most Americans is that children in foster care are juvenile delinquents with behavioral issues. Of course, I was no exception. I didn’t know anything about adoption or foster care. Those were not subjects that were discussed around the dinner table.

Two weeks after starting at Heart Gallery, I attended my first photo shoot and my entire perception of these children changed. These were not juvenile delinquents.  Most of these children are in foster care for reasons beyond their control – including neglect, abuse and abandonment. They are simply older children who no one has given a chance. They have the same basic needs as other children. They need safe and supportive environments. They need love. They need families.

Heart Gallery Alabama’s mission is to promote adoption of children currently in Alabama’s foster care system by recruiting professional photographers and videographers to take meaningful portraits and interviews that capture the individuality and personality of each child. After that photo shoot, I finally understood the importance of the mission.

I personally hope that after people watch our videos, their perception of children in foster care changes. I look back at my life and see all the support and love that I received and imagine how differently my life could have turned out if I did not have that system cheer me on in good times or pick me up during the bad times. I see so much potential in these children and I know all they need is the same thing.

My journey into the world of adoption was a real eye opener. Now I feel like it is my duty to use all my skills and resources to find these children families so they can have the same opportunities that I had and that my children have.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Heart Gallery Success Story: The Hagoods

Kevin Hagood and his wife Amie have a teenage daughter, Whitney, who loves Justin Bieber and One Direction.  She runs track and sings in her school’s Glee Club.  Her favorite color is purple, and her favorite subject in school is history. She sometimes gets in trouble for things like trying to create a Facebook page and other “normal teenage shenanigans,” says Kevin Hagood. 

Although Whitney seems like a typical teenager, her past of being a foster child was less than typical.  The Hagoods found Whitney when she was 13 years old through Heart Gallery Alabama (HGA), and they adopted her and gave her a forever family.

The Hagoods had several dogs but never any kids, according to Kevin Hagood.  “We had spare time and thought it would be a good thing to do.” They began with a web search about adoption, and stumbled onto HGA’s website.  “The way our work schedules worked, we knew we couldn’t really take care of a baby,” Hagood said. 

HGA takes photographs and videos that capture the unique spirit of each child beyond just words on a page.  “The biography helped but when we saw the video and her talking about all the things she liked to do, that sealed the deal for us,” Hagood said.

“It helps to see a video because it gives you the opportunity to hear the children talk,” Amie Hagood said. “You can see the way they use their hands and their quirky personalities. You can learn a lot about them.”

Although Whitney is their child now, the process was not an easy one.  “Adoption is a painful and slow process. You have to be ready for that,” said Kevin Hagood.  Whitney was 13 when the Hagoods found her, but they were not able to adopt her until she was 15 years old.
“It’s a frustrating process,” Amie Hagood said. “I think people should know exactly what they’re getting into, and make sure the history of the child is something you can handle.”
The first few months in her new home were definitely a big adjustment that both Whitney and her family had to get used to.  She used to have outbursts when she first moved in with her new family, and did not take criticism well.

“She acted out about a week after it was final,” Kevin Hagood said. “It was her realizing that she was here for good. In the past she could just get moved when she acted out and she was testing us.”

“In the beginning it was difficult,” said Amie Hagood. “It’s an experience with a child who already has stuff pre-wired.”

However, because of the kinds of things Whitney has dealt with in the past, it is no surprise that the first few weeks were not easy.  “She’s had a terror of a life. I’m surprised she does as well as she does,” said Kevin Hagood.

Life became easier for the Hagoods with the passage of time, and Whitney has become more well-adjusted with therapy and other resources.  “Most of the difficulties we deal with now have nothing to do with her background and everything to do with her being a teenager,” Hagood said. 

“Life is fuller with Whitney in it,” Hagood said.  There are many rewards that came with adopting Whitney. “When you meet a kid and you realize they don’t have anybody looking out for them, it’s rewarding to know that you can help.”

According to Hagood, it is nice to be able to be a parent to Whitney and provide her stability.  “It’s nice to see when she does well in school and we like to see her succeed in things.”
“She was so happy the day that her adoption was finalized, she wrote a poem about it and typed it up on her computer,” Hagood said.

HGA was helpful to the Hagoods during the difficult process of adoption.  Many other children have found their forever homes through this organization as well.  “I really love the Heart Gallery, those people are really good.”

Even through all the difficulties, the Hagoods have found a sense of family since adopting Whitney. “I don’t think I can imagine the house without her now,” said Amie Hagood.
“It’s very important to a family to love forever and know that they will love you back and trust you,” said Whitney.

“She always comes around and tries to hug on us and sometimes she hangs on a little too tight, but she’s a good kid,” Kevin Hagood said.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Interview with Heart Gallery Alabama's 2011 Photographer of the Year, Donna Hovey

By Autumn, Donna’s daughter

Donna Hovey tells of her first experience as a photographer for Heart Gallery Alabama with compassion. The first time Donna took pictures of a foster child, she had no idea how much she would be blessed and humbled. She recounts the first girl she photographed, "The six-year-old girl saw pictures in my living room of my daughters and asked who they were." Donna told her that the girls in the pictures were her daughters. The little girl replied, "You have lots of girls. I want to stay with you." 

After Donna photographed the sweet child, the girl left with her social worker, and Donna sat down disheartened, prayed, and wept. Later that year, it was brought to Donna's attention that the six-year-old was the first to be adopted through Heart Gallery Alabama. Because Donna believes that when one is given much, much is expected, she wants to serve and bless others. She just never realized how much these children would bless her.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

[HELP] - to accomplish a task; satisfy a need; contribute strength or means to

I am Autumn, a high school senior, and new to this blog and even Heart Gallery. Why

do I want to help? Not only is it what is right, but it is a heart striking thing to me. I am

blessed- overly blessed- and I need to share my blessings with others. There is no better way

to do so than volunteer for Heart Gallery of Alabama. Because there are over 6,000 children in

the state of Alabama without a permanent home and, most importantly, a family, I am more

than happy to lend a compassionate heart and lending hand to the organization that changes

children's lives. Changing lives should be the ultimate goal in life. That is my goal; with Heart

Gallery, it will surely be possible.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dendrology: The study of trees

People have an odd fascination with trees. We use them to describe others: “Oh, you know…the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” or, “He’s as tall as an oak!” People also freak out over the idea of cutting old trees down. (There is an amazingly old oak tree at the end of my Daddy’s drive way that still stands because my Daddy “freaked out” on the power company when they wanted to cut it down to run power lines.) Family trees are particularly funny things. I’ve never traced my own genealogy, but I do feel connected to at least the past couple of generations. If asked, I could make a reasonable attempt at completing my own family tree; but children who are adopted often don’t have it quite so easy.

Sometimes children are asked to complete family trees in school and this exercise can be particularly frustrating for children who have been adopted. Who do they list? How do the branches split? How do they recognize biological histories and adoptive parents on the same tree? The task would be difficult….if not for the Joshua Tree.

The Joshua Tree is a species of Yucca that grows in the Mojave Desert. There are several things about this tree that you should know. First, the tree grows in an extremely harsh climate where water is scarce and temperatures range from 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 130 degrees in the summer. To survive here, these trees must be hardy. Second, the tree is rumored to have been named by early Mormon settlers who said the branches looked like outstretched arms that guided travelers. Third, in order for the trees to develop their characteristic branches they must produce flower blossoms. Fourth, the roots of the Joshua tree go deep into the ground and spread outward to 30 feet. Finally, although they can reproduce by seeds just like most other plants, Joshua Trees also reproduce by rhizomes. Rhizomes are horizontal extensions of the roots that produce additional trees.

Why am I giving you a lesson on Joshua Trees? Because, as an adoptive parent of a sibling pair, I think the Joshua tree is a wonderful metaphor for an adoptive family. Children waiting for adoption have been removed from their biological homes for some significant reason. While we may question the parenting skills of the biological family, we should not pretend that these children do not have a history apart from us. These children are resilient; hardy…they have been able to survive in extreme (and sometimes harsh) conditions, yet we will reach out with open arms to welcome them into our families. Every adoptive family hopes that they can help these children blossom into healthy and happy individuals. We help our children develop a deep and extensive root system that they can rely on when things don’t go exactly according to plan…and finally…the adoptive family tree will have sprung from the horizontal connection of a child’s biological family. These family trees will grow together…connected at the roots…a product of each other.

Family trees are, indeed, amazing things…especially when they have such diversity.

By Treva Dean, Adoptive Parent