When Jessica Shuman first met her new daughter, the then-7-year-old couldn’t write her name or count to 20.
She was a scrawny second-grader performing at a kindergarten level. She was on ADHD medication and sleeping pills. Her name was Angelina, and she was the most beautiful girl Shuman had ever seen.
Angelina was born premature and drug-exposed. She spent her life in and out of the foster care system, and in 2014 she was featured in the Miami Heart Gallery, a portrait gallery of adoptable children. A close friend sent Shuman Angelina’s photo and she called the social worker that day.
Shuman, now an engineer and mom to 9-year-old Xander and 8-year-old Logan, said she had a rough childhood too, which is why she wanted to adopt a child.
“We can show her that just like me, her past doesn’t define her,” Shuman said.
As of Jan. 27, Angelina has a new home with a pool, new brothers, new parents and a new name — Zoe.
Exactly a year earlier, Zoe came to live with the Shuman family. She stopped taking sleeping pills and started eating more. After weaning off the ADHD medications and a year of intensive tutoring, Zoe is at grade level in math and reading.
When she read her first book, Shuman “cried and cried and cried.” Zoe now has an enviable schedule of after-school activities. She swims, plays piano and dances ballet, tap and jazz.
The menagerie of pets in the Shuman home (four dogs, three cats, two ferrets, two bunnies and fish) has Zoe telling people she wants to be a veterinarian.
Zoe didn’t speak much at first, but soon she came out of her shell. She started hugging Shuman’s husband, “a big, scary policeman.” Zoe loves to hold his big hands in her tiny ones.
“Of course we have struggles,” Shuman said, “but we fight for and with her so she doesn’t feel like she’s doing it alone.”
The biggest hurdle the Shuman family faced with Zoe was an eight-month adoption delay. The good news came in December, when the family was on what was supposed to be their adoption celebration cruise. When Shuman broke the news to her kids, they jumped and screamed and hugged each other.
Emily Cardenas, spokeswoman for The Children’s Trust, said building families, like the Shumans, is the reason why the Heart Gallery was started.
“Children in foster care are among our most vulnerable youth,” Cardenas said. “Clearly these are kids who can’t be left behind.”
Zoe is one of 340 children featured since 2008 and one of nearly 180 who were adopted. Like some children featured in the gallery, Zoe made two appearances before she was adopted. Children are re-eligible for the gallery every two years.
“It’s not an easy sell,” Cardenas said. “Getting kids adopted out of the foster-care system doesn’t happen at the drop of the hat. It takes time to recruit families.”
The gallery represents a fraction of the 3,400 children in Florida’s child welfare system, said Liliana Oliveros, spokesperson for Our Kids, the state’s foster system. About 200 of those kids are available for adoption at any given time.
But the effect of the Heart Gallery is bigger than the 180 kids featured. The site averages 30,000 to 40,000 unique visitors a year and more than 140,000 page views annually. Visitors drawn in by the gallery often end up adopting other kids not featured.
Oliveros said she had an interested parent call for Zoe after her adoption.
“They went on the Heart Gallery with her son, and her son said, ‘Oh, we need her, we have everything in common,”’ she said. “He prayed for her five times on the way home from school.”
When she broke the news that Zoe had a family already, Oliveros reminded the prospective adoptive mom that there are plenty more kids who could use a mom like her.
“Those children serve as ambassadors to many, many other children in the system, and that’s what makes the Heart Gallery so special and such a useful tool,” Cardenas said.
The best part about the Heart Gallery, Oliveros said, is “those inquiries come in every day.”