It all started with a look. I’ve heard that phrase so many times. When you ask someone how this all started. How did you two get together? What made you fall in love? What made you guys a family? And it’s an easy explanation to accept. It all started with a look. Or a smile. Or a laugh. Or a gut feeling...I knew you were my family. I knew you were mine.
So how do you define family? It has historically been defined as a group of people who are descended from a common ancestor, and when a lot of us think of family, this definition rings true. I, for example, grew up in a house with a mom and a dad and a little brother. I have photos of my mom holding me in the hospital bed. And I have photos with her and the rest of my family for every birthday after that one. Growing up, we loved, argued, celebrated and fought, day in and day out, and then at Christmas-time we all got in the car together and drove to Georgia to be with the rest of our family - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - because family is important, and being together during the holidays was just a given. No matter what, I had a place where I belonged. I had a home. I had a family.
You've heard the saying "A picture says a thousand words," right? It's part of why I love being a photographer. You capture a moment, a personality, a relationship, a story, and then you get to show the rest of the world what you see through your lens. Every photograph has a story behind it, and every photograph is important in its own way. A single photo can change your perspective. It can show you the world from someone else's viewpoint. It can demonstrate love, or heartbreak, joy or sadness. A single photograph can change your life.
In January of 2005, Michelle Bearman-Wolnek got a call from her best friend, Karen Nomberg. She had just read an article in Parade magazine about a non-profit organization called Heart Gallery. Based in New Mexico, this organization was using the power of photography to find families for children who were in the state foster care system. They partnered with the state, as well as local professional photographers, who donated their services to photograph each available child, then Heart Gallery would put up exhibits in different parts of the state in hopes of finding permanent families for these kids. Karen and Michelle agreed that this needed to be in Alabama.
Michelle always knew she wanted to do something that would help people. It's what led her to get her degree in Social Work, and what keeps her active in her community. Her humility would never allow her to admit it, but it's also what makes her an incomparable friend and mentor. Combine her ready heart with the idea of doing something so great with one of her greatest friends (not to mention the fact that she emailed DHR and they responded with a resounding yes, please!) surely meant that this was what she was meant to do.
Starting Heart Gallery Alabama didn't come without its difficulties though. Little more than a year after first reading that article in Parade, Karen passed away after a long fight with cancer. I never got to meet Karen, but from everything I heard and read about her, she was truly special. Michelle lost a great friend, but gained a renewed desire to make Heart Gallery everything Karen imagined it could be, and I can't help but smile at the legacy she leaves behind. Her kindness and compassion are what led to the founding of this incredible organization in Alabama, which, ten years later, has helped to find permanent, loving families for over 600 children in Alabama's foster care system.
In 2008 I had the honor of landing a part-time job working for Michelle, which is how I met her. She needed a Program Manager Assistant to help with answering phones, marketing, fundraising, a little bit of everything. I had previous experience doing this for other local non-profits, plus Heart Gallery's mission was one I was sincerely interested in helping, so I was ecstatic when she offered me the job. (Of course, I came to find out later that it was really my previous experience as a Barista that sealed the deal. My first job duty was to show her how to use her new french press. And I happily obliged.)
Michelle and I are very different to be sure, but our mutual love of a good cup of joe, combined with our heart for helping kids, bonded us pretty quickly, and we were fast friends as well as happy colleagues. I learned so much working for her, and with her. And not just how to effectively run a business, but how to treat people. How to see people. One of the most important things to understand about Heart Gallery, and something Michelle adamantly advocates, is that they aren't just taking photos of 125 kids a year; they are allowing us to see and hear the stories of 125 children that we would otherwise never get to meet. As Michelle told me, "The goal is to humanize the [adoption] experience and the children as much as possible. Make them real, not the statistic."
Too often when we think of foster children, especially the older kids, we think about the stories we've heard, and unfortunately the ones that tend to make the news, or sell the best-selling novels, aren't good stories. So we list them by age, gender, race and diagnosis, and make our judgements from there. But what human can possibly be fairly judged by so shallow and short a list? The goal of Heart Gallery is to not only show you their faces, and show you how real these kids are, but to show you their different personalities - what they want to be when they grow up, their interests, their fears, their desires, their hopes.
Of course, humanizing these kids wasn't Michelle's only reason for wanting to help them. A lot of it had to to with her own experience with adoption. When Michelle was growing up, she was always around a lot of kids, and everyone always told her she would probably have lots of kids, but Michelle remembers thinking, "Well, what if I can't have kids?" She told me, "Somehow I think I knew I was never going to get pregnant, and I knew I was going to adopt."
When she and her husband, Seth, first started talking about adoption though, going through DHR didn't even seem like a possibility. It was scary, and hard. It was easier to adopt outside of the U.S. than to try and deal with going through the system here. So that is what they decided to do. I know she wouldn't have it any other way now, because she has two beautiful children that were adopted from Russia, but I also know that making state-side adoption less scary is an important part of what the Heart Gallery does as well.
Heart Gallery understands the process of adoption, and because of that knowledge they are able to educate the public through their website and other social media. Michelle has also fostered strong partnerships with the social workers and employees at DHR to help make the process of adoption as smooth as possible for the families who inquire through HGA. Every month, Michelle answers over three hundred inquiries from families who have questions about adoption, fostering, or about a specific child. Michelle answers every question she can, and those she can't she directs to a person who is able to. Just by being there, and by providing these resources and education, Michelle has been able to help a multitude of kids find the kind of happiness that only a loving family can bring.
Michelle's kids, Meyer and Raquel, are now sixteen and fourteen years old. I can't believe how much they've grown up since I last saw them five years ago. Meyer is learning how to drive and Raquel is on the cheerleading squad. They are both figuring out what they want, what they like, don't like, who they are.
It was surprising to me to hear that her kids still sometimes need reassurance, even though they were adopted at 6 and 7 months old. "There is grief associated with every adoption, no matter how well you're doing...You have to figure out what they need. As you come into your teenage years you are still trying to figure out your identity." Meyer and Raquel are both Russian, but being raised in Alabama. They were both baptized, but they're being raised Jewish. There is always a sort of questioning and seeking that happens when you are a teenager, but it can be more difficult when you know you're not "from here."
That difficulty is made worse when we don't want to talk about it. As if there's some sort of shame in saying you're adopted. We want to say that kids who were adopted should be raised the same way as any other child. But that isn't really true. Being adopted is part of their identity, and that's not a bad thing. In fact, Meyer and Raquel's adoption day is celebrated in the same way I celebrated my birthdays with my family. Which makes sense, because that is the day they became a family. Why wouldn't you celebrate that?
Michelle says she always knew you could love someone you weren't related to. Turns out, family is not equivalent to common ancestry, nor is familial love subject to a DNA test. The definition of family can't really be found in Merriam-Webster, because it comes in every shape, color and size. The only thing normal about family is that there is nothing normal about it.
Adoption is about finding your family, pure and simple. It isn't about saving people. It also isn't about "being called to do it" or doing it out of obligation or guilt. You have to be all in, because family is forever.
People sometimes thank Michelle for adopting, telling her "They are so lucky to have you." Michelle quickly responds, "No, I am so lucky. I did this for me. I got to be their mom. They did me a favor." And sure, sometimes it's hard. But, when is being a mom not hard? And when is it not the best thing you've ever done?
I got to go back and visit Michelle in Birmingham a couple of months ago. She showed me their new office location, and her yoga ball chair. More importantly, she showed me the stacks of Heart Gallery portraits that have been retired because the children in them have been adopted. In the ten years that Heart Gallery Alabama has been around, they have photographed over one thousand children. Sixty-five percent of those kids have been adopted. All because a woman saw a need that had to be filled, and had the heart to fill it.
Heart Gallery's next step is to start putting up digital displays around the state, which would allow them to show more kids in more venues, increasing the chance of these kids finding their permanent families exponentially. There are over five thousand children in Alabama's foster care system, and more are added every day. Most of those kids will be reunited with their biological families, but many are still waiting to find their forever family.
I would love to live in a world where every kid has a place to call home, and someone to call mom or dad (even though it would put Michelle out of a job...). That might not ever happen, but in the meantime I am so grateful for the people like Michelle who have dedicated their lives to getting us a few steps closer.
November is National Adoption Month. If you are still looking for your family, Heart Gallery Alabama might have the answers you seek. As their motto states, "There are no unwanted children. Only unfound families." Yours just might start with a look.
To find out more about Heart Gallery Alabama and learn about the children in need of a permanent, loving family, please check out their website and Facebook page. If you'd like to read more stories in the #InspiredBySeries, click here. To see more of Jessi's current work, check out her Facebook page.
To see more photos from my time with Michelle's family and to order prints, click here.
Copyright Jessi Lambert of Jessi Casara Photography. For inquiries please contact me.