Foster kids Alicia, Patience and Milena were all dolled up, ready to have their pictures taken at HistoryMiami Museum on Flagler Street.
A lot was at stake as they chose their outfits and had their hair tugged for the Miami Heart Gallery cameras — these kids all want to be adopted and have permanent, loving homes.
“Foster kids are some of the most vulnerable children next to homeless children. They are the most vulnerable children in our community and they deserve an opportunity to be loved by parents who have the ability to care for them and guide them,” said Emily Cardenas, communications director for the Children’s Trust, which collaborates with Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe on the Miami Heart Gallery project.
“So this is the Children’s Trust Miami Heart Gallery, and it was developed by a still photographer who had adopted a child and decided that it would be a wonderful thing if children in the foster care system were photographed so people could see with their own eyes how beautiful these children were,” Cardenas said.
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The Heart Gallery, which exists online as an interactive exhibit, was birthed nine years ago and aims to “find forever families” for foster children who cannot safely be returned to the custody of their biological parents.
Since 2009, the Gallery has showcased dozens of foster children in popular Miami locations like Wynwood, South Beach and the University of Miami.
“We believe that HistoryMiami is another very special, iconic place in this community and what an interesting experience to expose these children to the history of Miami-Dade County — to be in a place that represents the roots of this community and where these children, funny enough, lack the kind of roots that they so desire,” Cardenas said.
The day began at 10 a.m. just inside the museum, where a team of volunteers had set up cameras, hair and make-up stations, make-shift changing rooms and toys for the children. To say there was an abundance of play-dough may be an understatement, and the kids were not going to run out of coloring tools — that was for sure.
The first boys and girls slowly trickled in, moving mindlessly through the motions of dressing up and coloring with strangers as they waited to be photographed and interviewed. Some were thrilled to be fed donuts and have their faces made. Others just wished they could have slept in that day.
When asked what she thought the day was all about, 13-year-old Milena responded that she had “no idea. They just called. I wanted to sleep in today because on Monday I have school.”
Milena, who has lived in three foster homes since she was 8, said her current foster family is “the best” because they always go to the Florida Keys. Then, after a quick pause, Milena’s face lit up as she remembered what she would be doing this summer: “I’m going parasailing!”
While Milena sat in hair and make-up, 10-year-old Matthew stood obediently as the M Network’s camera crew adorned him with a body mic and clapperboard. It was interview time.
Each year, the M Network partners with the Children’s Trust to provide yet another way of getting to know these foster kids — through interviews. M Network’s Quincy O’Bryan served as the anchor for the day, sitting directly in front of Matthew and guiding him through what would be an intimidating few minutes on camera.
Matthew, whose fresh pair of Jordans just barely touched the floor, sat restlessly across from O’Bryan, who despite her thoughtful questions and syrupy voice could not seem to pull more than one-word answers out of her subject.
Back inside the museum, 11-year-old Alicia pored over a cloth flag she had already decorated with her name and a smattering of multi-colored polka-dots.
“I’m supposed to be in fifth grade since I’m 11, but I’m in fourth since I never went to school until last year,” Alicia said. “My mom never took me to school.”
Alicia began foster care just one year ago, and unlike Milena, was excited about the food and beauty preparations the day had to offer her. But Alicia made it known she was not here for the photo shoot, confessing that her true passion in life is to “be a nurse or a teacher. I came up with a teacher because I love school and I like kids. Even though I’m a kid, I still love kids.”
The day forged on seamlessly as child after child rotated through the cosmetic, photo-taking and interview portions of the schedule. Though the kids were more interested in playing with blocks and coloring flags, the goal of the day was clear to all who volunteered to make the gallery possible.
“There’s a huge need for adoptive parents for these particular children who we’re featuring today, but in our community we have a critical need for foster families who are willing to take these children in on a temporary basis, too,” said Flora N. Beal, the community relations manager of Our Kids.
Each month, the Miami Herald will feature a Q&A with a Miami Heart Gallery child hoping to be adopted and find their forever home.
Families interested in temporarily fostering or permanently adopting a child can contact Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe at 305-455-6000 or visit their website at fosteringourkids.org.