Teacher highlights kids in need of homes through art exhibit

When Melissa Parks took a family summer road trip from Detroit to Rhode Island last year, it changed her perspective on the world—and sparked within her a mission to connect adoptive families with children who need loving homes.

While in Rhode Island, Parks visited a science museum and was attracted to a collection of photographs on the wall.

“I don’t normally gravitate to portraits,” Parks admits. “I wondered what these kids had done for the museum.”

Parks learned from a booklet this was a Heart Gallery, and that all of the children needed to be adopted.

“We took the booklet into the car and started our drive home,” she recalls. “We’d stop for gas or to eat, and when we got back in the car, we’d read a story. We’d talk. We’d cry. By the time we got home we knew all the stories of these 17 children. That booklet stayed on the green desk by my back door.”

In the back of her mind, Parks, an artist and art teacher at Detroit Country Day School, knew she had to apply her skills to a similar, more local project.

It wasn’t until September 2015 when she joined Troy-based professional development nonprofit Leadership Oakland and was encouraged to champion a worthy local cause that her desire began to take shape.

Soon after, Parks crafted Art & Soul of Oakland County, a fine art photographic collection of children most in need of forever homes.

New take on a concept

On the surface, Parks’ idea wasn’t new. In fact, the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange, or MARE, supports a Heart Gallery effort that travels the state, and there are more than 80 Heart Galleries across the U.S. and Canada. Generally, Heart Galleries increase adoption by about 25 percent, according to Heart Gallery of America, Inc. co-founder Matthew Straeb.

According to Parks, Art&Soul of Oakland County's defining difference is its emphasis on art.

“How do you get the word out but through the power of art?” she asks. “I wanted to gather photographers who could capture the essence of who these kids are. Photographers who know how to get to the soul, because that’s what they do.”

She shared her idea with fellow Leadership Oakland participant Treger Strasberg, CEO of Pontiac nonprofit Humble Design. She was hoping to mine some startup wisdom for her project, which she received at Strasberg’s kitchen table.

“Melissa is singular and singular-minded,” says Strasberg. “She’s creative, and knew in her mind this was a calling for her.”

Partnership with Orchards Children’s Services

Parks gained the commitment of award-winning art photographers Linda Solomon, Heather Saunders, Rashaun Rucker and others. Hoping to partner with Orchards Children’s Services, Parks met with CEO Michael Williams and described her vision: a professionally-shot small exhibit to be displayed in intimate settings.

The staff at Orchards carefully considered the project and worked closely with their Adoption Resource Consultants to identify children who tend to be difficult to place in adoptive homes, mostly due to their age. The final Art&Soul exhibit includes nine children between the ages of 11 and 17.

“We recognized that nationally known, award-winning photographers would be able to showcase the children to a different audience, people who perhaps weren’t directly seeking it,” explains says Orchards chief development officer Katora Cole.

Any uneasy feelings about being the “poster child” are assuaged by the knowledge that careful decisions begin with the best interest of the children, Cole says.

“We have long-term relationships with these children through foster care, and they have been in the system for a long time," says Cole. "We approached the children directly and had long conversations. We asked is this something you want to do? Your image would be out there, in print; are you comfortable with this? And they were wholeheartedly interested.”

In addition to the canvas photographs, Art&Soul produces a glossy color brochure with information about each child, the project, and the process of adopting a child.

Art&Soul’s mission works in tandem with the Orchards, says Jane Cullen, LMSW, program manager at Orchards Children’s Services in Southfield. As of June, 172 children in Oakland County were available for adoption, including those matched with a family and in the process of completing an adoption, according to Cullen.

“For us, this is very personal,” Cullen says. “Our staff have their contact information in the brochure. Melissa was the heart behind the project, and we loved the idea. Anything we can do to bring about awareness is our role. We are all working toward a common goal of permanency for our kids.”

Intimate venue, intimate conversations

The intimacy of a small exhibit helps Cullen better communicate with potential forever families, she says.

“Conversations are more in-depth, and I reach more people that way, and Art&Soul will be at different types of venues, which allows me to reach people differently than I would at Winter Blast or the Ann Arbor Art Fair,” Cullen says.

Adoption is, of course, the best, but not the only desired result of the project. Raising awareness about foster parenting, cultivating offers to host fundraisers, or gaining commitments to create significant, supportive, lifelong connections to these children are all considered successful results.

Parks reports that the project is generating interest, and she is booked up for showings in coming months.

“People are calling and asking how they can learn more about adoption, based on the exhibit and news coverage,” she says.

But as an educator, parent, teacher and artist, Parks has an even larger objective for Art&Soul of Oakland County.

“My hope is that by seeing children as art, people will start seeing children as our greatest resource, as our future," she says. “I know what art does for people, and I know the power of children. Merging these two will have a huge impact on our community. If people can’t adopt, they can at least become aware. You can’t un-see these stories.”

Following a debut at Orchards Signature Event at Soundboard on May 6, Art&Soul was exhibited at r.collective salon in Clawson, and at Rochester Hills Public Library, and the Pontiac Creative Arts Center
The exhibit will be shown at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center from September 9 until October 14. The exhibit is available for future bookings.
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