Teacher and longtime Bloomfield Hills resident Melissa Parks was on vacation in Rhode Island when she happened across a booklet full of beautiful photos of children showcasing each child's unique qualities.
"I couldn't figure it out. They weren't senior portraits, and each was different and had a special quality," said Parks, an art teacher at Detroit Country Day School. "My husband handed me the booklet and it turned out all of them needed adoption. I proceeded to read the stories of their hopes and dreams. When we had time to stop and look and think about it, I cried for each of them.
"'Does this mean we are adopting a child from Rhode Island?' my husband asked. I wasn't sure at the time."
While Parks didn't adopt any of the children, the experience inspired her to start a similar version of the booklet for children in Michigan in need of adoption.
"I started investigating it and called the state of Michigan and met with the director in Rhode Island and learned how they did it and pitched it to a friend at a school barbecue," Parks said. "She grabbed my hands and said, 'You were put on earth to do this. Look at the energy of how you're talking.'"
One year after visiting Rhode Island, Parks launched the first version of Art & Soul.
"It launched on the front page of the Detroit Free Press in 2016, the same day as the woman in Rhode Island who started that gallery passed away," Parks said. "That's when I knew that this was bigger than me, and that one person with the right motivation and right passion can make a difference."
The booklets work by connecting with professionally recognized photographers to capture images of the children.
"Statistically, when they reach 11, the likeliness of them being adopted drops drastically, so we feature older children," she said. "About three percent of them end up not being adopted, and age out of the system. There are 13,000 to 15,000 kids in foster care. It's such a big number that it's hard to wrap our heads around."
In addition to the booklets, Art & Soul maintains a year-long traveling photo exhibit of adoptable children, who typically range from 11 to 17-years-old. The exhibit includes 18 gallery-wrapped 16-inch by 20-inch, canvas photos. Each May, during National Foster Care Awareness month, the organization launches a new exhibit. The current exhibit represents 19 children (two sibling groups) as well as two forever families. In all cases, photos are taken by award-winning local and nationally-recognized Detroit area photographers.
"We discovered that children who attend the events, they see hope and they feel they have been seen and valued," Parks said. "Imagine you don't have a parent. Just to wrap your head around that is a challenge. Then you think that they are so resilient. They have hopes and dreams, and they are able to move forward."
The hope, Parks said, is that those who see the exhibit and take a booklet will eventually be moved to action. The trick, she said, is walking a fine line between celebrating who the children are and eliciting feelings from potential parents without feeling like the children are being exploited.
"There's a fine line we have to check in with ourselves to make sure we are authentically helping the community to see their true self as individuals, not because of their circumstances, but in spite of them," she said.
Photo: Laurie Tennent