Two valley nonprofits are teaming up with the Arizona Department of Child Safety to boost adoption chances for children in foster care.
Helen’s Hope Chest — a Mesa-based organization that gives clothing, personal products and school supplies to foster kids every month, and the Johnjay and Rich #LoveUp Foundation — another movement that assists with similar activities and donations, are sponsoring events to connect foster youth with “forever families.”
The two organizations will aid DCS with their Children’s Heart Gallery, a website showing pictures and biographies of children ready for adoption.
“It’s important for us to find permanent homes for these children,” said Gillian Vanasse, DCS program administrator for foster care and post permanency supports. “We want, whenever possible, for children to have a family-like setting and find permanency through foster care.”
“This is a recruitment tool to help give exposure to these children so that they can find a family to help meet their needs well beyond 18,” she continued.
The gallery aims to inspire potential parents to pursue the adoption process.
For the past five years, #LoveUp has helped fund and coordinate the photo shoots, rallying volunteers, professional hair stylists and photographers to help.
Helen’s Hope has been distributing free clothes and personal needs to foster families since the financial crisis of 2009, is now hopping onboard and will provide two new outfits for each child to wear during the photo sessions.
“The goal is to get the kids adopted out of the foster care system and to connect them with a loving family,” said John Zielonka, Helen’s Hope Chest community outreach coordinator. “So that they can put whatever brought them into foster care behind them and live a healthy childhood.”
Around 14,200 children in Arizona are in foster care, according to DCS.
While more than 70 percent of the children up for adoption are adopted by their relatives or foster parents, the remaining kids need special recruitment efforts.
That’s where the Children’s Heart Gallery steps in.
“Our first step is to try and keep children with their families,” said Vanasse. “If that’s not possible, we try and reunify. If that’s not possible, that’s where the Heart Gallery becomes involved.”
“The actual event is a special day for children in that situation to get pampered and get their hair and makeup done and new clothes,” she added. “The goal is to make sure they have a special day but also an opportunity for them to connect with people.”
The children featured in the Heart Gallery represent all ethnic groups and range from toddlers to teenagers. Some have special behavioral or medical needs, while others may be groups of siblings.
The #LoveUp Foundation was chosen by DCS in 2014 to help maintain the Gallery.
Since then, the foundation has created a large mobile photographic exhibit that is displayed around the state.
“The #LoveUp Foundation really does try to spread love and kindness throughout our community — but one of our most special focuses is working with kids in the foster care system,” said Kristin Hower, executive director of the Johnjay and Rich #LoveUp Foundation.
“We try to work hand-in-hand with DCS to make this event really special with the kids,” she continued.
Helen’s Hope Chest started in 2009 as a clothing closet for youth in foster and kinship care. It has helped thousands of youth, from newborns to teens, by providing quality clothing, shoes, hygiene items, toys, books and school supplies free of charge.
There will be six Gallery events throughout the year, with the next one taking place in Tuscon in September.
Vanasse estimated that around 50 kids will be photographed at each event.
Helen’s Hope Chest is in need of clothing donations for children ages 7-18.
“In our experiences, we are usually low in boys clothing,” Zielonka said. “As long as we can continue to offer these clothes and rally the community, I think we’ll be a part of this for a while.”
Clothing donations can be dropped off at the 126 E. University Drive site in Mesa.