In its third year of bringing families together, The Miami Heart Gallery this year focused on the “happily-ever-afters” that have resulted from displaying professionally taken, artistically enlarged photographs of foster children who are eligible for adoption.
The project is a traveling exhibit that seeks to present the children’s images to prospective adoptive parents who will agree to provide the children with permanent homes.
Dozens of the more than 150 foster children in Miami-Dade’s child welfare system were displayed again this year at the project’s kick-off event at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami on Friday night, June 4. But special circumstances required that several of the photos be removed from the exhibit.
The circumstances? Adoptions.
On hand to celebrate the success of the gallery were several “new” families, adoptive moms and dads who connected with their children through the exhibit. And because their sons and daughters’ statuses have changed from foster children to being a part of a permanent family, their photographic images were removed from the gallery and presented to their new parents.
Debbie Riquleme was full of emotion when she was called forth to accept the photo of her son, Andre. She tearfully explained that
because other parents were initially considering adopting Andre, she and her husband, Roger, were not able to immediately begin the process to make him their son. They learned six months later, however, that Andre was still available, and began the adoption process, which was finalized last year.
Roger said everything in Andre’s life happened for a purpose, and “that purpose was to bring him to us.”
He added, “No matter what he’s been through he still has that spirit. He is going to soar. We see great things for him.”
Not all of the children shared Andre’s good fortune.
Darryl Dukes, 17, is still in foster care after being part of the exhibit since 2008. The very dapper Dukes, who said he hopes he will be adopted before he turns 18, addressed the audience, advising the crowd to, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”
Modesto Abety, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust, said the project has been successful across the country.
“The Heart Gallery is in 100 cities all over the United States, and over the last ten years, thousands of kids have been adopted,” Abety said.
In Miami-Dade, roughly 50 percent of the children included in the exhibit have either been adopted or are in the process of being adopted.
Adoption is one of the options available to child welfare agencies that contract with the state to reduce the number of children on the state’s foster care rolls.
One of those agencies, Our Kids, Inc. of Miami-Dade and Monroe, also works with birth families to remedy the issues that resulted in their children being placed in foster care in the first place. In many cases, those children are reunited with their families. For those who are not able to be returned home, adoption is the preferred solution.
“We’re so proud of Our Kids. Four years ago, there were almost 5,000 kids in foster care. Today, there are fewer than 2,500,” Abety said.
In a full circle experience, one of the gallery’s photographers was once a foster child himself in
“I was adopted when I was a few months old. I grew up in Brooklyn, even though I was given up for foster care, parents raised me as if I was one of their own,” said J. Nunez, who is now a well-known celebrity photographer.
Nunez said his life after adoption was largely great, but included some valleys along with the peaks.
“I went from volunteering at a soup kitchen to eating at a soup kitchen,” he said of a rough period in his life.
What started out as a way to raise money for a new business venture involving hip-hop greeting cards has morphed into a very successful photography career that has included taking pictures of Diddy, Kimora Lee Simmons, Russell Simmons, Mary J. Blige, Wyclef Jean, Rihanna and others.
Nunez said his work has even allowed him to work, “In South Africa with Nelson Mandela,” one of several accomplishments that he shared with the audience.
“I could go on and on…,” he said to laughter and
applause, adding that he was there to testify about what children can achieve when they are adopted.
Photo courtesy of The Children's Trust. Yidareus