The camera flashes as Clark Marten, a Master Craftsman Photographer speaks warmly to his subject.
“You’re a handsome guy!” he says as he tries to spark a smile from 10-year-old Isaiah. The curly-haired, brown-eyed spunky kid is posing for something that he hopes will change the course of his life forever.
“My mom died and I really want a new mom to protect me,” he says as he shuffles his feet nervously. Isaiah is one of the five children in the care of the state whose face will soon grace a newly revamped Heart Gallery. This rotating gallery housed at Rimrock Mall features the faces and stories of children in foster care who have no family identified to care for them.
“There is just something about it,” Diana Tolstedt, a recruiter with Wendy’s Wonderful Kids says. “When people hear the stories about the kids or they see their faces, what Clark captures in their eyes, it really captures these kids’ hope, their vulnerability, and their dreams. I think it helps break the old myths that kids are in foster care because of something that they did.”
Right now, more than 600 children are in the child protective system in our six county region that includes Yellowstone, Gallatin, Clark, Musselshell, Stillwater and Carbon counties. Many are living with extended family. Others have found families to foster them. More than 100 are available, right now, for adoption. Of that number, roughly 30 children in our area have literally no one in their lives. 75% of these kids live in group homes, which provide for their basic needs. These are the kids that the Heart Gallery is hoping to help.
“They have experienced so much pain and guilt that some of them really feel that they are the reason why they are in foster care. That is so wrong,” Diana says. “The Heart Gallery brings these kids alive. It tells their story and gives them a voice. This might be the only time that some of these kids are in the spotlight.” Clark Marten, who donates his time and talents to the project shares, “I think it has made a big impact and many families have been changed. This is life changing.” Not to mention, he says, “The kids can look at their photos and say, ‘Gee, look at me. I am very special.’”
The first Heart Gallery launched in 2009 at Rimrock Mall and since then, 56 kids have had their photos taken in the hope that this beautifully simple black and white canvas portrait will help connect them with a forever family.
In nine years, this gallery has seen its share of success stories.
Two of the first portraits to be placed on the Heart Gallery’s walls featured 13- and 14-year-old brothers. The two played basketball and were well liked in the halls of their high school. One day, a friend and his family just so happened to get a glimpse of the two in the middle of Rimrock Mall as a part of the gallery. It wasn’t long before their photos landed them in a new home of their own. Diana shares, “We put their picture up and one of their friends saw it and had no clue that these kids were living in foster care and needed a family.”
Sometime before Christmas, Rimrock Mall will unveil a brand new, beautifully redesigned Heart Gallery. It was designed by Nick Pancheau with Collaborative Design Architects and handcrafted by Mark Sevier of Dovetail Designs. Both men donated their time to give this gallery a facelift. From there, an anonymous donor footed the bill for the gallery which (add…could) cost up to several thousand dollars in materials to fashion.
Seeing the community spirit behind this effort, Rimrock Mall Marketing Director Daron Olson couldn’t be happier to see the mall continue to support the philanthropic effort. Given the fact that the mall witnesses four million annual visits, Olson knew the power that foot traffic could provide. “What I see is people stopping and staring at these photos. When people see the pictures of those children and they are lured into the gallery, it really gets the gears moving in people’s heads as if to say, ‘What can I do to contribute?’” He is quick to add, “It only takes that one unique visitor to come through and really change the course of a child’s life.”
For 10-year-old Isaiah, it’s the hope he’s holding on to. Spend any time at all with this bright-eyed boy and you’ll notice his sly sense of humor. He loves talking about video games and says that he enjoys drawing animals in his free time. He looks up to basketball icons like Michael Jordan and shares with a smirk that if you take him to the basketball court, “I’ll school you.” This full-of-life 5th grader isn’t a huge fan of school, “I only like school for the recess,” he says jokingly. And, if he had a favorite meal, he’d have to pick spaghetti, pizza or steak. When asked what brings him joy, he says it’s the thought of a family of his own. “I really want a family that is really nice and kind.” He pauses and says, “I am a really nice kid when you get to know me.”
To learn how to become a foster family or provide that emergency care, please call Lori Ketchum at 657-3144. Since the primary goal is to reunify many of these children with their family, the state would love families willing solely to foster, to open their homes and hearts to kids who need a little extra love. Each family wanting to become licensed must undergo 18 hours of mandatory training to learn the tools needed to become a successful foster family.
There are always material needs when it comes to children in the foster care system. If you can’t foster a child, consider other ways you can help. Consider donating one of these things to brighten a child’s day. If you’d like to make a donation, give Lori Ketchum a call at 657-3144 to find out how.