Fifteen-year-old Winny loves science class at school where she’s learning how the body works, about outer space and giant “black holes.” “We get to learn what nobody else knows,” she says. Her dream is to become a scientist or an astronaut one day.
Winny has another big dream, too: For a family to adopt her, and love and care for her like their own child.
While most of Miami cheered at the Heat victory parade, Winny spent the day along with 17 other foster children, from 2 to 15 years old, flashing their best smiles and chatting with videographers – about their hopes and hobbies, interests and insights – and then being photographed at some of Coconut Grove’s most recognizable locations. The children are part of the Miami Heart Gallery, an initiative of The Children’s Trust and Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe that strives to find permanent homes for those children in the foster care system who are most difficult to place – children with special needs, siblings and teens such as Winny.
The Children’s Trust Miami Heart Gallery, in its sixth year, follows a national model launched in Santa Fe in 2002. The move to a fully web-based project allows prospective parents anywhere in the country to see photos of children and watch their videos at www.miamiheartgallery.org. The Miami Heart Gallery has had particular success in finding homes for the children: Approximately half of the children featured since 2009 have been adopted or are in the process of being adopted.
For the photoshoot, siblings Quanadrayvia, 11, Nairobi, 8, and Eugene, 5 are reunited for the day. Both “Quana” and Nairobi live at the same home; Eugene lives at a different foster home.
Quana’s big wish is for the three to be together more of the time. With no permanent parents in their lives, Nairobi is clearly appreciative of the role his older sister plays.
“She teaches us good habits – to be respectful, and not to be bad and not to lie,” says Nairobi, decked out in a flashy sky-blue tie and sharp vest. The self-designated family spokesman, Nairobi does his best to keep his younger brother Eugene from squirming on the couch. He answers for both of them when Eugene turns camera shy.
And what does “sis” think of her younger brothers? “They’re both fun and nice,” Quana says.
Volunteer make-up artists and hair-stylists prepped the children for the video sessions held at the Coconut Grove Art Festival offices. When finished, the children were shuttled to the different sites to be photographed by professional photographers who also donated their time and expertise to the initiative.
Florida artist Maria Reyes Jones, contributed a piece of her original artwork – a kaleidoscope of squares and swaying palms set inside a heart – that served as the artistic basis for the 2013 Miami Heart Gallery redesign.
“As an artist, I don’t have a lot of money and I’m always looking for opportunities to give back in whatever way I can. I love it when I can offer some kind of gift like this,” said Reyes Jones, the 2010 Coconut Grove Arts Festival poster winner. “It’s really a special cause – who wouldn’t think it was a good thing,” she added.
Elizabeth Olivares was one of the many volunteers who turned out for the day. The Coconut Grove shoot marks her third Heart Gallery. “Listening to the kids and their stories, I really feel for them so I’m glad to help,” she said.
Approximately 150 of the 1,500 children in Florida’s foster care system live in Miami-Dade County. Almost anyone can adopt. You don’t have to be married and you don’t have to make a lot of money. Most important is the willingness to love and provide for a child in need.
Adoptive parents undergo the same training as a foster parent, yet are ready to be matched with adoptable children once they are approved. The process usually takes about a year, from the time a parent begins training classes to final adoption. The thorough process helps ensure the most desirable outcome for both the parents and child.
There is almost no cost to adopt a foster child, and the state of Florida reimburses adoptive parents up to $1,000 in adoption costs such as attorney fees. Federal tax credits apply in the year the adoption takes place. Adopted children later receive tuition and fee waivers for any Florida public state university, public Florida College System institution or public postsecondary career and technical program.
Just 2-years-old, Kameshe is a long way from college. She’s the youngest child in this Heart Gallery. Case manager Yadira Martinez nicknamed her – “Piruli” – after her favorite Cuban candy because the little girl is so sweet.
“She loves to be cuddled by those she knows and is comfortable with,” explained Martinez, balancing “Piri” on her lap in front of the cameras.
“She was just so tiny when she came to us, now she’s much stronger and healthier,” Martinez said of the little girl, who has a G-tube inserted in her abdomen to provide adequate nutrition. “With the right treatment she has come a long way; she needs a family who will be around her and really dedicate time to her. She’s a fighter, a real health survivor.”
Instead of thriving in childhood, like a child should, kids in foster care often simply learn to survive. Many bounce from home to home over a number of years. The Miami Heart Gallery seeks to match parents who want the joys of parenthood with children who yearn to be loved and cared for.
Winny, for example, describes her ideal family this way: “warm, active and understanding.” Surely there’s a family out there that fits that bill.