Bernie Young typically got one of two reactions when she told friends that she and her husband Joe were adopting two older mixed-race siblings in foster care.
“It was either ‘Are you crazy?’ or ‘That is amazing!’ No matter what, it always drew some kind of reaction,” says Young with a laugh.
Why? Because the Youngs were 60 and 62 respectively when the adoption papers came through. Their natural “child” was 34 at the time, with two children of her own.
It may have been a gamble, but Young says there are “zero regrets,” only gratitude and happiness. Bringing Jesse, now 19, and Sara, 18, into their lives nearly six years ago turned out to be such a positive experience that she’s now a tireless promoter of late-life adoption.
“I’m not saying it works out like this for everyone,” admits Young, 66. “But if you go into the process with knowledge of the system, patience and an open heart, it can be incredibly fulfilling.”
And she credits The Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco
for playing an instrumental role in making it all happen. It’s the group that first introduced the Youngs to the two youngsters who would eventually become such a big part of their family.
Growing a family
Young, who owns a consulting company, was giving pro bono help to The Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco with developing a strategic plan and mission statement when the idea of adoption began to take hold. The nonprofit posts portraits taken by professional photographers of hard-to-place older children and sibling groups in the state foster system.
The concept of using dramatic portraits in a traveling exhibit to draw attention to the children and their plights was the vision of New Mexico adoption specialist Diane Granito in 2001. The intent is to personalize their stories through pictures and words, in hopes of finding them a permanent home before they age out of the system.
It was such a huge success that the Heart Gallery
is now a collaborative project in some 120 locations across the country, including about a dozen in Florida.
Tiffany Faykus, executive director of the Pinellas and Pasco chapter, can personally speak to the gallery’s effectiveness. Since launching in these two counties in 2006, the Heart Gallery has played a role in helping create more than 220 “forever” families.
On any given day, she says, there are more than 3,000 children in foster care
in Pinellas and Pasco counties. That includes close to 100 who are available for adoption.
While many foster children are eventually reconnected with their parents or taken in by responsible relatives, Faykus says “too many kids end up fixtures” in the state system. It’s only after their parents legally lose parental rights that they can start the waiting process to become adopted, often lingering for years in foster care.
Finding the best match for kids and parents
The Heart Gallery works as the “middle man” between prospective parents and its lead agency partner, Eckerd Community Alternative, as well as caseworkers from Directions for Living, Lutheran Services Florida and Youth & Family Alternatives.
When Young first saw Jesse’s portrait and read his story, she thought he would make a good match for their family. Two previous candidates hadn’t worked out, but she wasn’t ready to give up.
“Adoption had always been on our radar,” she says. “But like a lot of people, jobs and other family commitments seem to get in the way. If we were going to do it, we knew we couldn’t wait any longer.”
Then she learned he had a younger sister, though the two hadn’t lived together for years. They had been in and out of several foster and group homes after being taken from their mother, who suffered from alcohol and prescription drug addiction. After several failed attempts to overcome those issues, her parental rights were terminated.
The Youngs thought it would be a good idea to reunite the siblings. They only had one requirement. They wanted kids who liked school and showed a genuine interest in education. Both attended Academy Prep Center (http://academyprep.org) in St. Petersburg, a rigorous year-round private middle school that stresses academic excellence, community service and leadership for students who qualify for need-based scholarships.
At their first supervised meeting with Jesse and Sara at a Bob Evans restaurant, Young knew they fit that bill.
“They started discussing Greek mythology with Joe,” she says. “It went over my head, of course, but they were all getting deep into the discussion. By the end of that meal, I knew they were the ones.”
It took two years to complete the adoption process.
Support services for the journey
Young’s hunch about their dedication to education was right on target. After a year and a half, Sara – who skipped a grade – was offered a fully paid scholarship to Chatham Hall All-Girls Preparatory School in Lynchburg, Va. The boarding school, which claims notable graduates such as famed artist Georgia O’Keefe, costs about $45,000 a year.
She graduates this May and is awaiting word on a full scholarship to Emory University in Atlanta. Her brother, a senior at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, was named one of the top 10 students of the year. He’ll graduate next spring as well.
“Really, it’s hard to imagine our lives if we hadn’t taken this step,” Young says. “Though my husband was very determined that he wouldn’t be attending any high school graduations in his 70s.”
And they question they often get asked? “Yes, raising teens in our 60s has kept us younger.”
Joe Young, 68, an internal consultant with the City of St. Petersburg, is now retired, and Bernie is taking on fewer clients these days. The couple recently celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary and are downsizing from their sprawling home in Pinellas Point to a nearby condo.
A new program recently added to the Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco is helping ease the complicated and lengthy adoption process. Faykus says support services are now available for families along all stages of the adoption journey.
“It can be an isolating experience,” she says. “When you go through something like this, people don’t always understand. You can feel alone and frustrated. These support groups will make a big difference for our families.”
Donations make it work
With a relatively small annual budget of $300,000, the Pinellas and Pasco chapter depends on the kindness of others. First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg is providing free office space for a year, local professional photographers donate their time for the portraits that appear online and in a traveling exhibit, and one of the staff positions is paid for by an anonymous donor.
There’s a new addition in reaching out to prospective parents: Videos featuring the stories of the children in their own voices.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth 10,000 words,” Faykus says.
The chapter is also putting priority on encouraging minority adults to adopt minority children. There are financial incentives to adopt as well, with providing the children with health insurance coverage and in-state college tuition.
“There’s no doubt that the foster system is a broken system,” Faykus acknowledges. “And we’re just a small cog in this huge wheel. But we will do whatever we can to make the right connections and to provide the support the families need. In the end, we have a lot of very happy stories.”
Bernie Young says she’s definitely one of them.
“I told the kids from the beginning that we may not be the perfect parents they had dreamed of, but we will give them plenty of love and attention,” she says. “Those are really the main things all children need and want. It’s been a win-win situation for all of us in our family.”
Michelle Bearden, a former Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV reporter, is a freelance writer living in the Ballast Point neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.