COLUMBIA — The family of four beamed at the front of the Friends Room at the Columbia Public Library on Monday afternoon. Sarah Gray and her children, Jamila, Tyler and Elianna, had a lot to celebrate.
Elianna officially became Elianna Gray earlier that morning, her adoption finalized two days after her 11th birthday.
“It’s awesome that it’s finalized today, but we’ve been a family for a long time,” her mother, Sarah Gray, said.
When Sarah Gray first became a foster parent, she just wanted to provide a temporary place for children to stay while their parents got the help they needed.
She already had her biological son, Tyler, and did not plan to become an adoptive parent.
Then she met Jamila. She was 12 years old when she was placed in Gray’s home five years ago. She legally became a part of the family three years later, when Gray adopted her.
When Elianna, Jamila’s biological sister, entered the foster care system two years ago, Sarah again opened her heart and her home.
“[Elianna] was Jamila’s sister, and we all needed to be together,” Gray said.
Organizations behind the Missouri Adoption Heart Gallery hope to make more stories like the Gray family's possible.
The Heart Gallery is a traveling display of 272 portraits of children in Missouri still waiting for permanent families. The gallery began a tour of the state in late April and, when it ends in November, will have stopped in more than 20 locations. It is set to be on display at the Columbia Public Library through July 19.
The idea for the project came from Diane Granito, who was working for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department as a foster and adoptive parent recruiter in 2001. She wanted to create inspiring portraits of older children and sibling groups who were waiting for adoption.
This is Missouri’s fifth year of creating a touring Heart Gallery. The project is headed by the Adoption Exchange and the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
At the opening ceremony for the Columbia stop Monday, Cary Augustine said there are more than 9,000 children in the Missouri foster care system. Of those, approximately 1,400 can never return to the homes they left. Augustine is a Boone County associate circuit judge and presiding judge of the family court division for the 13th Circuit Court.
“It’s an opportunity to raise awareness for how many children out there are actually waiting, in the state of Missouri, for their forever family,” said Amanda Atkins, an adoption specialist with the Children’s Division.
“A lot of children end up getting adopted each year out of the Heart Gallery,” she said. “So we’re hoping that we find families for a lot of these kids.”
The gallery specifically showcases children between the ages of 6 and 18 who have been waiting a long time for a family. The age group makes up 66 percent of the children in need of adoption in Missouri and is a harder age group to place, according to the project’s website.
The Adoption Exchange coordinates with the Children’s Division to set up the portrait sessions with photographers across the state who donate their time. Not just a cookie-cutter image of a smiling child in front of a blank background, each portrait highlights the child’s personality through color and props. Miller’s Professional Imaging, located in Columbia, provided the printing services at a discounted rate.
Anyone who visits the Heart Gallery and becomes interested in adoption, whether it’s adopting a specific child or just the idea in general, is encouraged to contact the Adoption Exchange.
“Already, as we were setting up, they had a lot of pictures marked with ‘family in progress,’” Atkins said. “Just from a few weeks of traveling around, people are already calling or going on the website.”
Although Sarah Gray did not meet her daughters through the Heart Gallery, she is a proponent of the project.
“I think it’s important to raise awareness for adoptive families and foster parents in our area,” Gray said. “All the international adoptions and celebrity adoptions get so much attention that I think people forget the need locally and the duty we have to take care of the kids in our community.”