By Michael R. Malone
Martin Avery, 11, wants one. Chad and Brad Mercado, 13-year-old fraternal twins, and their younger brother Salvador, 11, want one, too. Brothers Ray Gomez, 15, and Julio Gomez, 16, want one, too, but have been bounced through the foster care system for so many years that both are hesitant to leave their present living situation.
These kids and dozens of others, all housed in group homes or with foster-care families, are eager for families to adopt them. The Miami Heart Gallery, an initiative spearheaded by The Children's Trust, hopes to make those dreams come true.
Based on a national model, Miami Heart Gallery has enlisted the support of award-winning photographers from Miami and around the country to donate their time and expertise. On successive Saturdays in February, renowned photographers like Nigel Barker, of "America's Next Top Model" fame, brought their telephoto lenses, tripods and quick-action flashes to Jungle Island and to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to photograph the kids.
The kids loved it. Most had never heard of, let alone visited, the world-famous Botanic Gardens. So on a bright breezy day, in between trips on the tram to see iguanas, a gigantic Baobab tree and marvel at the huge sculptures of pop icon artist Roy Lichtenstein, the kids got to enjoy the limelight, striking poses for some of the industry's top photographers.
"It was real cool how they took the pictures, the way we got to do our thing," said Ray Gomez, who has been in the foster care system for the past seven years. "The photographers just told us how to pose and to be unique. Sometimes we did our own poses, like with my brother, we were hugging and he put his thumb and I put mine up. It was real alright."
Ray attends Mays Middle School and lives in Goulds in a group home. He's been there for three months, having had to relocate from a previous group home that could no longer offer the services he needed. Julio attends South Dade High School and lives in Homestead with a foster family. Both boys understand that education is the key to their future, enjoy reading and hope to become therapists and teachers when they're older.
Though Ray has a back-up plan, "If I can't be a teacher, I'll be a basketball or football player," he says.
At Fairchild, the photographers shot more than 50 pictures of each child and youth. In total, 70 children will be featured at a museum-quality photo exhibition that opens June 13 at Miami Art Central in South Miami. The photos will be highlighted, too, on a specially designed Web site with audio recordings of each child talking about themselves, their hopes and dreams. The site will also include a video of the development of the Miami Heart Gallery.
The exhibit will later travel for display at the Miami International Airport and then tour to other area sites – to attract the attention of potential families that might adopt.
"Our kids need a place to call home. They need a family, someone who's going to root for them on the bench and help make their dreams and goals come true," said Sabrina Sosa, community relations coordinator for His House Children's Home (HHCH), which has 11 children participating.
His House Children's, privatized two years ago, is listed among top five providers for at-risk children in South Florida. The agency, contracted by Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc. and Child-Net, Inc. in Broward, provides residential care for 65 children and more than 350 children in foster care. Yet despite those efforts, there are more than 800 children in South Florida awaiting adoption, the overwhelming majority who are African-American.
Sosa stressed that His House is meant to offer only temporary support, and that their goal is to find families for the children. Miami Heart Gallery helps that effort to locate caring, loving families.
"It's exciting to see how many volunteers – photographers, hair stylists, printing studios, and others – have come together to donate their time, expertise and resources to a project that will go a long way towards finding loving parents for so many children," said Modesto E. Abety, president and CEO of The Children's Trust.
Anyone interested in learning more about adopting a foster child can call The Children's Trust Helpline by dialing 211.