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Published December 21 2012

Kindness is Contagious: Project helps foster kids find loving homes

How many pictures do you think you’ll take of your kids or grandkids this Christmas? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

I’m not much for photography, but these days, with my phone and camera all rolled into one, it’s easy to snap a few photos when the kids are being just too darn cute.

I assumed all kids were used to their parents pleading “Look over here! Smile! Hold up the new sweater from Aunt Ruth!”

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Tamara was 17 years old when the North Dakota Heart Gallery offered to put her portrait on display along with the pictures of other kids waiting to be adopted.

She was shy, and it took a little while for her to get used to the camera. When she began getting comfortable, the photographer continued to encourage her with some good-natured teasing about how she must be a model and have her picture taken all the time. Before striking her next pose, Tamara casually replied, “No. No one’s ever wanted my picture before.”

That young woman spent her entire childhood without a family to call her own, without someone wanting to capture every precious moment of her life in a snapshot.

Getting her picture taken was a big deal.

Michelle Kommer saw the vision of the North Dakota Heart Gallery one night back in 2004 when she and her husband were watching television. They saw a short story on the Heart Gallery of New Mexico, which featured photos of kids who needed forever homes.

Michelle called the director of that program and asked how to bring it to North Dakota.

After partnering with ASK, PATH and other organizations in the area that help children who need to be adopted, Michelle and her group of kind-hearted volunteers held their first gala in 2008.

There has been a gala every year since.

It’s not that Michelle has a passion for parties, she simply wants to raise awareness of the need for adoptive families in North Dakota.

National statistics show that after age 9, a child has less than a 50 percent chance of ever being adopted. Those chances decrease every year until the child ages out of the foster care system.

Then they go out into the world, into our community, as adults who have no real roots to which they can return.

The idea of the North Dakota Heart Gallery is simple. Kids who are having difficulty becoming adopted because of their age, because they are part of a sibling group, or because of special physical or emotional needs are offered the opportunity to have their photo and story shared as part of a traveling exhibit.

The photos celebrate the beauty and spirit of the children and are accompanied by a short bio that the kids write with their social workers.

The intended results of the Heart Galley are to raise awareness and find homes for these kids. In the first four years, 54 different children have been featured and 42 have been adopted.

But the program has produced some other amazing results even for the kids who don’t find a forever home. Michelle says the process of being involved in the gallery makes the kids feel valuable and important.

Each child is taken to a store to shop for a brand new outfit. For many of these kids, it is the first outfit they have owned that came with tags on it. They get to pick out something that reflects their personality and then they get to show it off during a professional photo shoot.

Michelle says it’s not just the photos that make the Heart Gallery a success. In her words, the program is successful because we as a community can’t tolerate the idea of these kids going without a home.

Please continue to share your stories of kindness with me at nphillips15@hotmail.com. Or send a letter to Kindness is Contagious c/o Nicole Phillips, The Forum, 101 5th St. N., Box 2020, Fargo, ND, 58107.

HEART GALLERY PHOTOS ON DISPLAY

The Heart Gallery photos will be on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater through mid-January before heading to Sts. Anne & Joachim Church in Fargo.

You can learn more about the kids, donating an outfit for the photo shoot, hosting the gallery of portraits or even putting up a digital photo frame at your business by visiting ndheartgallery.org.


Nicole Phillips is a former television anchor for Fox News in Fargo, and currently the executive director of Diva Connection Foundation. She is the mother of three kids and the wife of Bison men’s head basketball coach Saul Phillips. Her columns run every Saturday.