'Heart Gallery Of America' Brings Hope To Foster Care Children
“The measure of a society is how it treats its children.”
For the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking about adopting a child. I’ve been doing so for three reasons. First, I am fortunate and I know it. Second, I’d like to share that good fortune with a child whose world it could change. And, third, I love children.
With this in mind, I broached the topic with a close friend of mine. What followed her support and enthusiasm was the suggestion that I familiarize myself with Heart Gallery Of America (HGOA), an organization and project I knew nothing about but would certainly familiarize me with the many children available in the foster care system. Needless-to-say, before I arrived home, my friend had already sent me the link to the HGOA site. I was both excited and teary-eyed by what I saw.
Spread out in front of me was a gallery of incredible photos - all professionally taken - featuring children waiting to be adopted. Their best faces forward, these brave little soldiers were doing what they could to heighten their chances of finding forever families of their very own. Thoughts of what they had already been through kept invading my mind as I reviewed collections of photos categorized by state closely followed by thoughts of what they were actually coping with now. Neither scenario was good -- each broken in its own way. I became even more committed to adopting a child out of foster care as well as learning more about HGOA.
My education began with its founder, Diane Granito, a foster and adoptive parent recruiter for the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department, who coupled two great ideas to create the first heart gallery in Santa Fe in 2001. The ideas were both simple and ingenious - to improve the quality of the photos taken of kids waiting to be adopted out of foster care and to display those photos where others could actually see them, such as in a gallery. A few volunteer photographers and a host of high-end and engaging snapshots later, adoptions soared through the heart gallery as did the concept, which quickly ventured into other states.
Eighty-five heart galleries later, Diane Granito remains involved with this project and organization in an advisory capacity, while co-founder and board member Matthew Straeb handles day-to-day operations. I caught up with Matthew, recently, who shared even more about today’s HGOA.
What is the mission of Heart Gallery of America?
The mission of Heart Gallery of America is to facilitate and utilize the power of photography to capture the individuality and dignity of children living in foster care, in order to advocate for their permanency, raise public awareness about their needs, and obtain support to help meet those needs.
How did you become involved in Heart Gallery of America and what role do you play?
I am both a co-founder and a board member. I became involved in 2006 after seeing a segment on Heart Gallery of America and Diane Granito. Being in charge of special projects for my church, I approached Diane Granito and then my church with the idea of launching a heart gallery in Broward County, Florida, where I live. They agreed and so we did it. That began my involvement. It continued with my unifying this grassroots movement into a more formal organization and brand.
HGOA launched in 2001 by Diane Granito. Share a bit about the woman behind this project.
Diane Granito is a ball of fire as well as loving, determined, extremely smart, and business savvy. I can't say enough about her. She's a great lady.
How many people are currently involved in making this project work?
Thousands -- most of whom donate their time. We have 20,000 volunteers alongside six thousand photographers who work on a pro bono basis. In addition, we have 5,000 employees. It is a big operation driven by an even bigger heart.
How likely are the kids participating in the heart gallery to be adopted?
Children who are in heart galleries are twenty-five percent more likely to get adopted than children who aren’t. These kids must agree to be photographed in order to participate which takes tremendous courage. They are willing to put themselves out there because they so desperately want to be adopted. The average length of time for a child to become adopted after being seen in a heart gallery is approximately nine months. That said, some kids aren’t adopted for years, if ever. Each year, they muster up the strength to be photographed once again. It is both heartbreaking and amazing all at the same time as these kids continue not to give up, rather, cling to a single hope.
Explain the process of how a gallery is pulled together?
Any individual who wants to launch a heart gallery must come to me and Heart Gallery of America first, whereby he or she will go through the standard process (informationally, legally, and otherwise). The ultimate factor is funding as every heart gallery is self-funded. Currently, there are eighty-five heart galleries and all of them are funded in different ways.
How do you work with the foster care agencies across the nation to accomplish your galleries and keep current?
Each heart gallery works very closely with their state agency. Some heart galleries are actually funded by state agencies as a means of helping to get more of these kids adopted.
What do you believe is the biggest misconception about foster kids?
That these kids are broken. The fact is these kids are "victims". All they need is love, discipline, understanding, and a secure home to grow up in. You will be amazed by their transformations if they get those things.
We have limited promotional involvement. That said, we thought it would be a great way of expanding awareness about Heart Gallery of America, foster care, and adoption in general.
When all is said and done, how does HGOA want to be remembered?
As an organization that cares about kids and did everything in its power to help as many foster care children find permanent, safe, and happy homes.
Approximately 100,000 kids are presently available for adoption this year through the foster care system. There are over 318 million people living in the United States today. Could you imagine what would happen to our nation overall, given 3180 people found it in their hearts to adopt every last one of these kids? The impact would be enormous as would be the smiles of all those children, who could finally hang their high-end photos on walls they call forever homes -- mementos of courage, hope, and a belief that they, too, deserve to be loved.
“What greater impetus does one need to open your heart or door to a child?”
I know my answer. How 'bout you?
Many thanks to Matthew Straeb and Heart Gallery Of America for making this interview possible.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros/HGOA