By Michael R. Malone, The Children´s Trust
Betty Aguiar-Perez saw it in the little boy's eyes. She was one of more than 400 people who attended the June 13 reception that launched The Children's Trust Miami Heart Gallery, a museum-quality traveling photographic exhibition that features Miami-Dade foster-care children eligible for adoption. Aguiar-Perez walked slowly through the gallery, studying the 48 portraits, most of them taken by celebrated photographers who had donated their time and talent for this initiative. She saw adorable children – boys, girls, black, white, Hispanic, toddlers, teenagers – all of them hopeful for a permanent home with a loving family. But one little boy in particular opened her heart when she gazed into his eyes.
"I love children, and we really want to expand our family," said Aguiar-Perez, a former Ad Litem counselor who recently opened an early childhood center. She and her husband have a 4-year-old son. "He prays every night for a little brother or sister," she said, adding that the 10-year-old boy she's interested in adopting "looks exactly like I imagine my son will look like when he's that age."
CBS4 anchor Jim Berry served as master of ceremonies for the launch at Miami Art Central in South Miami. Berry talked of his love for his own two children – a son in college and a teenage daughter – and urged the crowd to consider adopting teenage children, who are especially in need of guidance and care.
Cynthia Calhoun, who has three biological children, has adopted two teenagers. Calhoun said it's important for children to have a stable home and that her adopted 15-year-old daughter Ashley is the most important thing in her life right now.
"I'm thankful every day and every night for the joy she brings to me, and my children accept who she is," said Calhoun, who recently began caring for a 4-week-old foster baby. "Take the chance to adopt – it's a challenge, but you won't regret it."
Dave Lawrence, chair of The Children's Trust, told the crowd that each of the 70 children featured in the exhibition represented a story. "And in the best of worlds, each child would be cared for and understood and be loved for all their lives – that's our mission." Lawrence has been involved for many years promoting health and early education for children, but said "even this blend of education and health is incomplete without love."
The children themselves were treated the night before to a preview of the exhibition. They saw their nearly life-size photographs for the first time – each was given copies of their photo – and visited again with the artists who had photographed them at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and at Jungle Island. Twenty-two photographers in all, including Nigel Barker, of America's Next Top Model fame, participated in the project.
The initiative is a collaboration between The Children's Trust and Our Kids Miami-Dade/Monroe, the private agency that contracts with the state of Florida to provide foster-care services. Our Kids helped select the children featured in the exhibition and provided special training to Children's Trust 211 Helpline operators, instructing them on the guidelines and legalities of the adoption process.
The Miami Heart Gallery follows a model that began in Santa Fe, NM in 2001, one which has spread to almost 100 cities around the country. A companion Web site, www.miamiheartgallery.org helps raise awareness of the nearly 400 Miami-Dade foster children in need of permanent homes. The site includes FAQs about the adoption process, as well as photographs and bios of the children. A unique component of the exhibition and Miami Web site are the audio recordings in which the children talk about their hopes, dreams and what they long for in terms of a family. Parents interested in adopting can express their interest by completing an online form or by calling The Children's Trust 211 Helpline.
Natasha Escalona, 24, attended the reception with her mother. Escalona, who grew up with two brothers and two sisters, heard about the Miami Heart Gallery reception at her temple and went immediately to the Web site to view the children.
"Now, after seeing their photographs I'm even more touched – and interested," she said. Escalona, who is single and works as an executive assistant for a property management firm, is considering between three children, ages 5, 6 and 7, in the exhibition. She and her mother plan to share the responsibility for care. "We could make changes in our home," they said.
The Miami Heart Gallery is open to the public Wednesdays-Sundays through June 29 at Miami Art Central. From July 4 to Aug. 4, it relocates to Windisch-Hunt Fine Art in Coconut Grove, then moves to the Miami International Airport from Aug. 14 through Oct. 10.