Photos designed to speak to the heart

They look like typical adolescents. Two sisters who share a warm hug. A girl who shyly pats a horse. A 12-year-old boy who smiles broadly, as if the bowling ball in his hand were the whole world.

But there's something different about these kids, as visitors to this photo exhibition know. They're foster children who want to be adopted, and this may be their last opportunity to find a permanent home.

It may also be the best opportunity they've ever had.

"Some people have misperceptions that children in foster care are all problem children, and they're not," says Corina Hopkins, director of communications for the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange, which organized the show.

"We tried to capture the spirit of each child. We wanted the photos to capture what's inside them."

That approach has worked well in other cities nationwide. Each show - called a Heart Gallery - is designed to touch people's hearts with compelling portraits, rather than citing statistics. All of the children are hard to place because they are older or are part of a sibling group.

Brief descriptions below each photo hint at what the children are like: collects Pokémon cards. Loves to sing in the church choir. Wants to stay in contact with his two older brothers.

What isn't mentioned is the courage these children have. Or the profound impact they've had on many of those who have worked closely with them.

"They are my heroes," says Diane Granito, who organized the nation's first Heart Gallery four years ago in Santa Fe, N.M.. "It's scary for them to think they might be rejected [by prospective families] and won't ever have somebody to turn to with good news or a problem. Yet they put themselves out there and take a chance."

Ms. Granito, who is now foster and adoptive parent recruitment coordinator for the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department, had little funding, so she asked local photographers to volunteer their time. She also persuaded framers and the owner of the prestigious Gerald Peters Gallery to do the framing and provide the space for free.

Twelve hundred people attended the exhibition on opening night. Dozens inquired about adopting; and of those, half completed the licensing process, which makes them eligible to adopt. (Normally, says Granito, only 5 percent of people who express an interest in adopting, usually by calling the department, become licensed.)

After four days in Santa Fe, the show traveled to other towns and cities in the state. Soon, adoption professionals in other sections of the country heard about Granito's success and contacted her for help in planning their own events. (She is currently working with 60 cities.)

Results have been consistently impressive: Tulsa, Okla., placed 29 children in its first year. Hartford, Conn., placed 19. And Tampa, Fla., found homes for 20 children.

But numbers tell just part of the story. Courage is the real theme.

Just ask Liz Linder, who photographed Brian, a friendly 12-year-old, for the Boston gallery (photo at right). On the day of their shoot, she met Brian at a bowling alley, where he was also being filmed by a cable news channel doing a feature on adoption. Linder watched as he calmly bowled and interacted with the crew.

"You could see that he was a brave little kid, willing to smile and show himself," she says. "The way he talked about what he wants, I felt like, 'Wow, he's going to go places if he gets into the right situation. He has real strength of character.' "

Faye, whose picture was in the Santa Fe gallery three years ago, also has strength of character. That was one of the first things photographer Jackie Mathey noticed about her.

"She was such a vulnerable little girl and such a strong force to be reckoned with at the same time," Mrs. Mathey says. "She has this feistiness about her."

That feistiness helped her deal with multiple upheavals and moving from home to home. Until Mathey and her husband adopted Faye two years ago, the dark-haired girl had never spent an entire year in one school.

"She always felt that she needed to protect herself and everyone in her world," Mathey says, "but now she has a big brother and an extended family on both sides who look out for her. She feels like she's a normal kid for the first time."

Not every child gets such a happy ending. Those who are 5 and younger find adoptive homes quickly, experts say, while those 9 and older often wait and wait; many simply age out of the system.

Part of the problem, says Granito, is that people just aren't aware of how many children need help, or of how the system works. In many cases, adopting through the state is free, and single people are eligible, even if they have modest incomes.

There are some hurdles, however. Applicants must take classes and wait for a background check and home study to be completed.

Virginia Stark of Santa Fe waited 10 months before she was allowed to adopt Katrina. The two met when Ms. Stark, a freelance photographer, agreed to do Katrina's portrait for a Heart Gallery show.

Something about the child, then 9, touched Stark deeply. "In walks this beautiful, sad little girl," she says. "I could see heartbreak in her eyes. That's what hit me most."

Stark chose a diptych for the gallery. In one shot, Katrina is looking down. In the other she is walking from darkness to light, a symbol, Stark says, of how the girl's life was about to change.

Mother and daughter have both made great strides since the adoption. "I've done some healing myself," says Stark, who had tried for years to have a baby with her husband. Eventually the couple divorced.

Both Stark and Mathey say adoption has enriched their lives. But they also note that the experience has been intense. "There are a lot of layers that still need to be removed," says Mathey.

The Heart Gallery removes some "layers" for the public, Mathey believes. "What the Heart Gallery does so well is introduce you to this world [of foster children]. I had no idea what to expect. I didn't realize how many kids out there need a home and need another chance."

Organizers of Heart Galleries around the country are trying to raise awareness in some creative ways.

New Jersey will include a picture of every child who's eligible for adoption - more than 300 - in its exhibit this spring. Tampa provided audio clips of the children at its most recent show. And organizers in Georgia are exploring the possibility of a Southeast Heart Gallery, which would place foster children's photos before people from several states.

"It's wonderful to see all the positive energy that's now being directed toward these children," says Granito.

Back in Boston, Hopkins and her colleagues hope that half of the 38 children in their first show - which opens Thursday at the Panopticon Gallery of Photography at the Hotel Commonwealth - will find homes.

They also hope that visitors will inquire about other children who are eligible to be adopted. (There are 3,000 in Massachusetts.)

"They all need a family," Hopkins says, "someone they can turn to long after they're 18."

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