For Hometown News
TREASURE COAST -- All children need security, trust, encouragement and someone to love them unconditionally. At any given time in St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River and Okeechobee counties, there are approximately 125 to 175 local children in foster care hoping to be adopted into a "forever home."
In 1995, President Clinton established the month of November as National Adoption Month in order to build awareness of the needs of these children. The Heart Gallery of Okeechobee & the Treasure Coast is one program that is helping children in foster care find permanent, loving homes with families locally and throughout the nation.
"All too often, people think of cute, cuddly babies when they think of adoption," said Frank Avilla, adoption marketing specialist for Children's Home Society of Florida. "In truth, there are many older children in foster care who need nurturing and loving homes. These aren't bad kids. Most of the children are intelligent, funny, outgoing, and full of character. They are brave and full of hopes and dreams for a brighter future that includes a family that loves them."
There is a stigma that children in the foster care system are troublesome. "It's just not always the case," explained Avilla. "Unfortunately, the kids who are removed from their homes were exposed to some sort of trauma including abandonment, neglect or abuse, whether emotional, sexual, or physical. These children may not have had a great beginning, but they can have a bright future with an adoptive family."
Kathy Basile, former executive director of the Children's Services Council of St. Lucie County, brought the Heart Gallery idea to the Treasure Coast after seeing the concept in Hillsborough County in the early 2000s. Struck by the photos and biographies of the children participating in the Heart Gallery, she knew this was something that could benefit children in foster care on the Treasure Coast. The vision became a reality with the launch of the Heart Gallery of Okeechobee & the Treasure Coast through the support of the Children's Services Council of St. Lucie County, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and Children's Home Society of Florida.
The Heart Gallery of Okeechobee & the Treasure Coast continues to be a collaborative effort of numerous organizations dedicated to increasing the number of adoptive families, as well as to heighten the awareness of the many children needing families in the community. Children eight-years-old up to 17-years-old in the foster care system are asked if they would like to participate in the program. A photographer from Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers takes a professional photograph of the children and a short biography is written to describe each participant. The photo and biography are then added to the Heart Gallery display that is exhibited yearlong throughout the Treasure Coast at local businesses. The profiles are also added to smaller "mini" Heart Galleries, adoption recruitment books and various statewide and national adoption websites.
"Currently, there are about 34 local kids participating in the Heart Gallery program," said Mr. Avilla. "At one point last year, we just had 11. The increase in the number of kids participating is both good and bad. It's unfortunate to see so many children needing a "forever home," but it's good that they are positive about wanting to participate in the Heart Gallery which then allows us to recruit additional adoptive families. Since inception in 2005, we have had between 60 and 70 adoptions take place because of this program."
The Heart Gallery of Okeechobee & the Treasure Coast is partially funded by the Children's Services Council of St. Lucie County, a local agency that helps the community by helping ensure every baby is a healthy baby, keeping kids off the streets, preventing child abuse, keeping kids off drugs and alcohol, and keeping them in school. Without the collaboration of professionals and numerous organizations, the Heart Gallery would not be able to assist children in foster care find permanent, nurturing homes.
"Before the Heart Gallery of Okeechobee & the Treasure Coast launched, pictures and profiles of children in foster care were only in a book on a shelf where few people saw them," said Mr. Avilla. "Because of the Heart Gallery, we can educate the community about the children up for adoption. We have a great need for families who are willing to consider adopting children who have experienced some sort of trauma. Adoption isn't for everyone, but for those interested, please think of the children participating in the Heart Gallery program."