Houston nonprofit helps foster kids get the forever families they deserve

For all reported failures of the foster care system, children in care are not part of it.

Take Leon, a 12-year-old boy with a freckled face who loves sports, especially boxing. So when he got the chance to step into the ring and spar with a professional boxer, he found it hard to contain his joy.

Then there are brothers Anthony, 9, Antwann, 8, and Artavius, 7, who are Astros fans and recently attended their first game.

These children and many more are part of Heart Gallery Houston, a program that helps find adoptive homes for foster children through a traveling photo exhibit. Local professional photographers volunteer their time to capture images of kids doing things kids do, like visiting the Houston Zoo, playing in a park, watching a sports game, or boxing.

The program is part of BEAR, Be A Resource for CPS Kids, which provides free clothing, diapers, car seats, hygiene items, school supplies and more to children in the care of protective services. from childhood.

Leon, 12, loves boxing and had the chance to train with former professional boxer Lou Savarese for his Heart Gallery Houston photo shoot. The project is an effort to find adoptive homes for foster children.

Barbara Perlick

How many children are waiting to be adopted? The numbers are staggering.

There are over 26,000 children in care in Texas. Only about 4,500 children were adopted in 2021. The number of adoptions has declined during the pandemic. In the Houston area, approximately 5,600 people are in state care.

Each year foster children must be photographed. Most of the time, their photos are taken quickly and look like a driver’s license photo ID.

That’s not how it went during the Heart Gallery’s first photo shoot in early 2020. Two photographers and eight foster children gathered at the Houston Zoo.

Elly Gribov, a photographer adopted as a baby who also has an adopted daughter and biological son with her husband, said she first asked the children simple questions about their favorite movie or character from Disney.

“When you’re with foster kids, there are so many walls,” Gribov said. “You try to make it easy for them. They want someone to listen to them and be interested in them, to feel like a person.

Some of the children are hesitant to be photographed because they have been down this road before: you have your picture taken, then pray that someone will adopt you. When this does not happen, the pain is deep.

But the Heart Gallery experience gives kids a chance to have fun and enjoy the moment. They are treated like children, not like foster families, as is often the case.

Siblings Vanesa, 13, Bryan, 11, Ismael, 9, and Elizabeth, 8, have a healthy bond and want to be adopted together.

Siblings Vanesa, 13, Bryan, 11, Ismael, 9, and Elizabeth, 8, have a healthy bond and want to be adopted together.

Elly Gibrov

Gribov recalled a group of siblings — Vanesa, 13, Bryan, 11, Ismael, 9, and Elizabeth, 8 — to the zoo that day. Two of them were quite reserved, so Gribov offered an ice cold fruit drink in exchange for a smile. It worked. She ended up dancing with the kids to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and “Baby Shark.”

It only takes something small to make children feel special.

“My goal is that they don’t need us and that no foster child has to sleep in a social worker’s office or hotel because they don’t have a family back home. who to go in. I want better resources for kids,” Gribov said.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the number of children in temporary accommodation rose from 47 in August 2020 to around 400 in August 2021, while their average length of stay fell from 3.6 nights to 18 nights.

The Heart Gallery makes minor but important changes. Since the beginning of the program, about twenty children have been adopted. There are now 12 professional volunteer photographers and 80 children in the program.

Social workers submit children who might have a higher chance of being adopted through BEAR’s Heart Gallery. These are usually the most difficult to place – older children, children with special needs and groups of siblings.

Anthony, 9, Antwann, 8, and Artavius, 7, like to share toys with each other and love the Houston Astros.

Anthony, 9, Antwann, 8, and Artavius, 7, like to share toys with each other and love the Houston Astros.

Barbara Perlick

The gallery has been featured at the Astros games at Minute Maid Park, the Children’s Museum Houston, Artwalk Galveston, Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as Willowbrook and The Woodlands malls. This fall, the exhibit will be on display at the Houston Public Library, IW Marks Jewelers and select area malls. There are also over 80 Heart Gallery projects across the country.

I’d love to see the exhibit travel to many of Houston’s megachurches, where there’s an audience of people who may have thought about expanding their families but don’t know where to start.

Photographer Barbara Perlick said she researches every child she photographs to find out what they like and dislike. A child who enjoys painting can be photographed in an art studio with access to supplies.

Perlick arranged for Leon to spar with professional boxer Lou Savarese and for Anthony, Antwann and Artavius ​​to attend the Astros game, where she photographed them on the stadium floor.

Satisfaction comes, Perlick said, when she receives a call that a child she photographed has found a forever home.

“I never walk away from these kids without feeling like they can make a parent’s life better,” Perlick said. “If we don’t step in and serve and support these children, what are we left with?”

This is a question we should all answer.

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