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THE SHOE PROJECT

For the past few weeks, Sabrina Birkmeyer, 14, has been going around her Lockport neighborhood asking people to hand over unwanted pairs of shoes.

She ended up with 156 pairs, all kinds. "We got a lot of sandals, quite a few pairs of girls' shoes, not a lot of boys' shoes," she said. There were sandals, running shoes, boots, even high heels. A little girl gladly handed over her bright orange Halloween shoes with big spiders on them. "My mom and I were talking and she thought the little girl might have been afraid of the shoes," Sabrina said.

The shoes went into a larger pile collected for a display on a sidewalk for an adoption conference last weekend in Rochester: Each pair is meant to stand for an older child -- or teen -- who needs a home.

It's a cause that has meaning for Sabrina, a freshman at Lockport Senior High School. She was adopted at the age of 9 on Feb. 24, 2000. Before that, "I was in about eight different foster homes," she said, in a telephone interview.

Having a family of her own means a lot to Sabrina. "I just think it's really important for people to know how many kids actually need homes. It wouldn't be easy for children to focus in life if they're constantly wondering where they're going next," she said.

Sabrina plays flute and piano; she likes to play tennis. She listens to Christian music and reads the Heartland series horse books. When she thinks about a future career, she thinks about working perhaps as a secretary or a nurse or even teaching social studies, which is her favorite subject at school.

Among the many wonderful things about belonging to a family, Sabrina notes, are all the other relatives. "I have aunts, uncles, grandparents and the best cousins in the world even though they're boys."

Nearly 1,000 children are waiting for adoption in upstate New York (outside New York City), and 315 of them are in Erie or Niagara counties, said Lisa Maynard, executive director of the Adoption Resource Network and organizer of the shoe display. Sabrina's mother, Bonnie Birkmeyer, who is a social worker with Hillside Children's Center, said: "Most of the waiting kids are teenagers and kids older than 10." That's why adult-size shoes are part of the display; they stand for teens who need homes.

Shoes were picked to make a statement because "we wanted to create a visual expression of the number of kids who need homes," Maynard said. "To be citing numbers all over the place is kind of boring. If you can see that there are hundreds of pairs of shoes, each one represents little feet that belong to children that need homes, that's going to make a bigger impact. (You'll say) 'Oh my gosh, somebody belongs to these shoes and they need a family'," she said.

There are many tragic stories behind parents who give up rights to their children. The kids may have been abused or neglected; the parents might be mentally ill and unable to care for them. In some cases, the parents are dead, Maynard said. And while 18 is the age when a person is considered an adult, just imagine what it would be like to be in foster care all your life and suddenly out on your own at 18, with no family for support.

Maynard said the shoe collection will also be displayed outside Family Court in Rochester this Friday, which is National Adoption Day. "What we're really trying to get across is that everybody needs a family. Teenagers who are in the system and looking at graduating from high school and aging out of the system, everybody needs a family. Just because kids turn 18 doesn't mean they don't need a connection to family."

For more information about the Adoption Resource Network Inc. log on to www.arni.org.