The faces - with shy smiles and eyes conveying looks of hope and anticipation - relay a silent message: "Please adopt me. All I want is a family."
Area residents will be able to view photographs of those faces when "The Heart Gallery of West Virginia - Portraits of Hope" makes a stop in Wheeling this week.
In celebration of National Adoption Month, officials of Mission West Virginia Inc. are bringing the traveling photography exhibit to Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, 680 National Road, from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19. The display features portraits of West Virginia foster children who are eligible for adoption.
“The Heart Gallery of West Virginia — Portraits of Hope,” a traveling photography exhibit promoting adoption of Mountain State children, will be on display at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery in Wheeling from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19. Representatives of of Mission West Virginia Inc. will be present to answer questions about adoption.
Carrie L. Dawson, public relations director of Mission West Virginia, said the Heart Gallery has been displayed in different areas throughout the state since 2005. The exhibit has been mounted "in shopping malls, libraries, bank lobbies, places where there is high traffic, where families interested in adoption might see it," she said. The traveling photo exhibit is utilized as part of child-specific recruitment.
At Tuesday's event, Mission West Virginia staff will be available to answer questions about foster care and/or adoption. A short program will begin at 6 p.m. Free appetizers will be available. "This event is open to certified families and those just interested in learning more about adoption," Dawson said.
"We started having the Heart Gallery dinners as an easy way for anyone to learn more and to talk to someone face to face," she said.
Staff members who will be on hand Tuesday will include Karissa Loring, a Wendy's Wonderful Kids recruiter in West Virginia. Dawson explained that Mission West Virginia receives funding from the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to employ two recruiters for the Wendy's Wonderful Kids program that the late restaurant founder, who was an adoptee, started to help children throughout the nation.
Waiting children, however, will not be present at the event. Regarding the goals of the project, Dawson said, "All children on the gallery have chosen to participate in the Heart Gallery and are hoping to find a loving forever family."
The exhibit, she said, "seeks to bring a face and give a voice to children who need and deserve the love of a family. By sharing their stories, the Heart Gallery hopes to touch hearts and find families for the children ready for adoption."
Children who are hardest to place - teens, minorities or sibling groups - are featured on the gallery, she said. The Heart Gallery project involves "between 20 to 30 children at any given time," she added.
All of the children featured in the photo exhibit are from the Mountain State. "We are in West Virginia; we work in West Virginia; these are West Virginia kids who need a family," she said.
The nonprofit organization aaks professional photographers to give their time and talent to create compelling portraits of waiting children. Dawson added that photographers in the Wheeling area are encouraged to volunteer for the project by taking photos of participating youth in Wheeling.
Observing that the Heart Gallery gives children "a voice in hope," Dawson commented, "Many of the children featured have waited years to be matched with a family who will love and support them to adulthood and beyond. Every child deserves to grow up with the love, support and safety of a family."
The photo exhibit "is a very good tool for outreach and awareness," she said. While it is difficult to measure the success of any given promotional method, "most recently we have started to track that more," she added.
Mission West Virginia also promotes adoption through the Frameworks program on its website at www.missionwv.org and with a regular series of newspaper columns titled "Sunday's Child" that are available statewide.
Regarding Mission West Virginia's role in the adoptive process, she said, "We're a neutral organization that works with all agencies and DHHR (the state Department of Health and Human Resources) just so we can find loving families for children in West Virginia."
Currently, there are about 4,000 children in foster care in West Virginia. "That means that they've been removed from the home for some type of abuse or neglect and have been placed in a facilty or with a foster family," Dawson explained.
"Once parents' rights are terminated or given up, then they (the children) are eligible for adoption," she added. "There are about 1,000 children in West Virginia who are legally eligible for adoption."
In the Mountain State, between 600 and 700 adoptions occur every year, although not all of those children come from the foster care system, she indicated.
Dawson said the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources also encourages adoption through an initiative called Adopt a West Virginia Child. Officials of the state agency list photos and profiles on its website, www.wvdhhr.org/oss/adoption.
At Mission West Virginia, Dawson said, "We work with children all over West Virginia ... We try to recruit families all over the state.
"There is a need for more foster care families in the Wheeling area. When children are removed from their homes in West Virginia, they are likely to stay in their home community, if there are more families in the Wheeling area that provide foster care."
Recruitment and referral are among the services provided by the Mission West Virginia staff. "We recruit families throughout the state and refer them to agencies in their communities. We provide contact infomation with the local DHHR office and list those agencies that they can call," Dawson said.
In the Wheeling area, the organization works with agencies such as the Children's Home Society and Pressley Ridge.
Describing Mission West Virginia's role with families, she said, "We're that friend that helps you through the process. There are a lot of myths about foster care and adoption."
One of the myths relates to the cost of the adoptive process. "International adoptions are pricey, but in West Virginia, an adoption possibly can cost you nothing at all," she said.
Another myth, she said, "is that children are in foster care for some fault of their own. They are mostly good kids who need help and support."
Mission West Virginia also encourages people to participate in service projects such as the Carry On Campaign in which new and "gently used" duffle bags and suitcases are donated so that youth in foster care don't resort to packing their belongings in garbage bags when entering a new placement. Donations of essential items, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, also are sought, Dawson said.
Another aspect of the Carry On Campaign is providing Christmas stockings for teens, with "hygiene items and fun little things like music players and lip gloss," she said.
Mission West Virginia staff, along with representatives of child welfare agencies and DHHR, participate in the Recruitment and Retention Collaborative of West Virginia to recruit and retain foster and adoptive families in the state, she said. Collaborative members meet once a month in each DHHR region to plan events for National Adoption Month and National Foster Care Month; to research best practices for child-specific recruitment and to provide training opportunities for members.
For more information on adoption, the Heart Gallery or the Frameworks program, call Mission West Virginia at 1-866-CALL-MWV (562-0723) or visit the website at www.missionwv. org.