After AJ, we were again back on the list and waiting for a placement when our licensing worker asked if we wanted to volunteer for a Heart Gallery photo shoot.
The Heart Gallery is a photo listing of children (primarily “older children,” sibling groups, and/or children with special needs) who are “legally free for adoption” (meaning parental rights have been severed). The kids get a new outfit, get their hair cut and/or styled, and get professional photos taken for listing in an online gallery to advertise them to adoptive families. We volunteered to work as “guides,” accompanying children through their half day photo shoot – helping them pick out their outfit and hair style and conversing with them to learn enough to put together a bio to go with their photo listing.
The event was hosted at a downtown hotel. When we arrived, as scheduled, at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, I was surprised to see the demographic of the volunteers was pretty homogeneous. Let’s put it this way: my husband was the only man; we were the only couple; and many brought their own small children along. We were two of only a few people without the official T-Shirt of the organization putting on the event.
The coordinator told us the rules. Only side hugs; only one portion of food per child (they served breakfast and lunch); and, most importantly, never be alone with a child. There were other rules – but those were the big ones. We were then given the name, gender, and age of our first charge and, with just that information, told to try to find her when she arrives. I guess there is no better way to do it. Children and teens started streaming into the room. We approached every girl who looked like she could be around 14 before we found her over by the coffee station. Child after my own heart….
Kids trickled in and out throughout the day. Some were transported by their foster parents, others by cab. (DCS is required to provide transportation for children to these kinds of mandatory events. In our state, at a certain age, this means DCS will pay their cab fare). They had toys and games for us to play with the children while we waited for photographers.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience. But I wouldn’t do it again. At least not as a couple. We were clearly a mom and dad. And the kids knew that. We also had no intention of adopting any of the children that we met that day. And the kids didn’t know that.
In particular, I got the sincere impression that two of the girls we worked with – one a tween and another a young teen, were doing their best to impress us. They asked us questions about ourselves and immediately pointed out any similarities. They loved to hike too! That’s also their favorite color! They told us how much they wanted a Mom and Dad. They asked about our dog; our house; and whether we had children. They told us how much they would like to live in a house like that. They told my husband he was funny. They told me I was beautiful. They both hugged us when they left.
I couldn’t help but worry that, weeks later, when it was clear they were never going to see us again, either consciously or subconsciously, they’d feel yet another rejection. Like they didn’t do well enough or make a good enough impression. And I’m not sure helping them pick out an outfit that day or playing checkers with them while we waited for a photographer was worth it.
Let me be clear – I would encourage anyone with an interest to volunteer with the Heart Gallery. It’s an excellent organization and experience and I (singular) would volunteer with them again. But I wouldn’t volunteer again as a couple. I would make sure I had the designated volunteer t-shirt. I would make sure that it was clear I was a volunteer – not two potential adoptive parents.
From time to time, I look up the girls that we were paired with to see if they are still listed on the Heart Gallery. As of this writing, a year and a half later, they are. One has had new pictures taken. They both look beautiful.