Helping Kids Find Homes

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Heart Gallery non-profit puts professional photos on display to attract new families for foster kids

The Children's Museum of the Arts downtown recently played host to several kids in the foster care system, and Heart Gallery, a non-profit organization that pairs professional photographers with kids and takes their pictures. From there, Heart Gallery, which has over 100 chapters all over the country, displays giant-sized photos of the kids at galleries or in public spaces like Penn Station. The hope, said director Laurie Sherman Graff, is to attract families who might be potential foster parents. In a gallery room at the Children's Museum of the Arts, 18 large portraits of 20 kids, ranging in age from kindergarteners to teenagers, and will be on display until the end of the month.

"It really jumped out at me, the thought that there's children out there who need families," said Sherman Graff. "People see these photos and they're touched by them."

The original Heart Gallery project started in New Mexico in 2001, and the New York chapter was created in 2006 by Sherman Graff. She has taken portraits of foster kids to exhibits in Penn Station, Times Square and politicians' offices. Heart Gallery also does match parties, where they invite prospective parents and foster kids, and get them to do activities together.

Many of the foster kids at the event last week shyly told heart-wrenching stories about their experiences in the foster care system.

Most of them had been shuttled from temporary home to temporary home. One 14-year-old girl explained that at one home, the first words out of her foster mother's mouth upon meeting her were to ask for the $40 in cash that foster kids are given once they go to a new home. Another foster child said that she has hated most of her foster home experiences because it was tough to get along with the families.

But even with their hardships, there are success stories. The keynote speaker at the event was Demetrius, a 17-year-old foster child who has never really had a home or a family, and has lived in 25 homes during his life. Despite this, the young man has aspirations of becoming a lawyer, and has been accepted by two colleges upstate.

"I don't want to settle for less," said Demetrius. "I know I'm greater than this."

Demetrius also said that it was a struggle to follow the correct path. His older siblings are in and out of jail, and have dabbled in drugs. But even though he was often angry at the foster care system, and at his temporary families, he has stuck it out.

Demetrius will age out of the system in 4 years, so he said that at this point, he considers his caseworker to be like family to him.

"My caseworker Toni Anne said to me that I will leave her before she leaves me. And it's true, I age out in a few years and she was always there for me," said Demetrius. "I want to help kids like me because being in the foster care system is not easy. We can work together, we can overcome this."

All success stories aside, Sherman Graff explained that the reason Heart Gallery works in particular is that usually the foster care system will distribute photos of children that look like driver's license shots. By working with professional photographers, however, they can really capture the personality of a child.

"You come to their level, you engage them in conversation first. If they're super outgoing or inverted, hopefully that photograph will make their personality shine," said photographer Camille Tokerud. "You can see your own kids in them. When you see the photo of that child, you can really relate to them."

Camille Tokerud had been looking forward to seeing Nicholas, one of her young subjects at last week's event. But she was just informed that he was adopted a couple of days prior.

"I got goosebumps," said Tokerud. "I miss seeing him, but this is why we're all here. This is why I do this."


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