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Sean Kirst: At Heart Gallery of foster children, portraits of lives you can change

Destiny Rogowski was greeted by one of her own photographs Thursday as she walked into the Ellicott Square Building. The downtown landmark had a magnificent tree in the middle of its grand arcade, with 26 photographs of children set in a circle around the base.

The faces were somber, joyous, reflective, timid, reserved. They made up the Heart Gallery of Western New York, in which about 10 area photographers, including Rogowski, captured images of 26 of the 373 foster children in the region still awaiting permanent placement.

Some will be adopted by foster parents. For the most part, the children in the Heart Gallery are the ones, at the moment, separated from a family or true home. The mission was simply making a connection with prospective parents.

That gallery will be on display at Ellicott Square throughout the holiday season, except for a temporary shutdown for other events next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The image Rogowski spotted was of a 14-year-old boy she had photographed at Niawanda Park in Tonawanda, his fingers touching the brim of his cap, his eyes reflecting the message on the caption: A bright and curious kid, eager for a family, yet so wounded by loss that he is anxious about any attempt to build relationships.

"This isn't about taking a photograph," Rogowski said. "It's about trying to capture the essence of who they are. So you've got to take your time."

She saw the moment, snapped her camera.

Photos of kids needing adoption at the Ellicott Square Building in downtown Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

There he was, looking outward, on a canvas in the arcade.

The Heart Gallery was born in Western New York in the early 2000s, faded away, and then reborn last year. If you want a sense of the purpose, Kara Marong-Houlahan, a state permanency specialist, offered an example.

Ten months ago, Francine and Camilla Smith-Calanni of Jamestown saw a Heart Gallery image of a 17-year-old named Brittani, a teen born with cognitive disabilities who had gone through three foster homes and was available for adoption.

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Some element of trust or beauty in that photograph, taken by Jennifer Allis, caught the couple's imagination. They inquired about Britanni. Once they met her, they quickly learned she's exactly as the image portrayed her to be.

"She's beautiful, the kindest human being, without a mean bone in her body," Francine said.

They already had a 17-year-old son, Andrew, adopted from foster care.

Within a matter of weeks, the couple expects that Brittani will legally become their daughter.

As for the photo, it is prominently displayed in three different places in their house.

Those kind of bonds are the entire point of the Heart Gallery, said Marong-Houlahan, who coordinated the event - a collaboration of many agencies that provide services for foster children.

In Western New York alone, she said,  more than 1,400 children have been removed from their homes and sent into foster care. The opioid epidemic, she said, intensifies that level of need.

Marong-Houlahan knows that many parents who want to adopt aren't sure of where to start, and she said the gallery builds upon a simple point.

"The whole idea is raising awareness of the need in our own community," she said. "These are children with hearts and dreams and goals like everyone else, and what they need is what we all need: Someone to be there for them."

That theme was emphasized by several speakers, including a young woman whose 21st birthday was Thursday – meaning she 'aged out' of the foster care system without developing the lifetime ties, or support, that go with an adoptive family.

She told prospective parents that she hoped the children in the gallery receive the break she never did, and she offered the same four words of advice emphasized by Marong-Houlahan:

Be there for them.

That sense of purpose was shared by Caleb and Kari Ann Huck, of Williamsville, who slowly circled the tree, looking at the portraits. They had attended a private reception for aspiring parents, where they had the chance to meet some of the children.

Like mother, like daughter: Sonia Azzi and her mom, Donna Bove, who have both welcomed foster children into their homes. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

Kari Ann is a school nurse, and she said the couple was particularly interested in providing foster care – and potentially, an adoptive home – for an older child.

"We're applying to be foster parents because we want the chance to make a difference for these kids," Kari Ann said. "If you remember what it's like to be a teenager, that's a rough enough time when you have a family around you. But to be a teenager, to be going through that, with no one behind you?"

It's a reason that she and Caleb are eager to get started.

Sonia Azzi, of Elma, showed up in search of a child she was hoping to find in an almost mystical way.

"I'm looking for a missing piece for my family," Azzi said.

She sat alongside her mother, Donna Bove of East Aurora. Bove and her husband Craig raised eight biological children, and routinely took in foster sons and daughters. Sonia grew up with foster children in the house, "with another brother or sister to confide in or fight with."

Once she and her husband Alan started their own family, they continued that tradition. They have six biological children, but often care for foster kids. It is a part of life. The children to whom Azzi gave birth welcome those who arrive at their home from somewhere else.

Azzi described the need, the sense of abandonment faced by many children, "as something so sad I can't even find the words, and especially sad at this time of year." She and Alan, she said, now want to adopt. She said they feel, in a kind of spiritual way, that they are meant to have another child in the house.

Sonia's role model is her own mother. Bove took a break for a while from providing foster care, but in her 50s – through her daughter – she became involved again.

At 57, she and her husband have adopted a 5-year-old. They're preparing to adopt that little girl's toddling brother.

"He's already ours," Bove said, which pretty much sums it up.

She's spent a lifetime nuturing her own Heart Gallery.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive. To learn more about foster care and adoption in Western New York, use this link or contact Kara Marong-Houlahan at 716-847-3031.

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