Michelle Bearman-Wolnek

“The best moment in my life was when I became a parent, both the first and second time. We traveled to Russia to bring my son home. When the orphanage worker placed him in my arms, I was as content as I have ever been. He smiled at my husband and me and I knew he was meant to be our son. The feeling was mutual, two years later, when we met our daughter at a different infant home.” –Michelle Bearman-Wolnek, Founder of the Heart Gallery Alabama

B yourselfName: Michelle Bearman-Wolnek

Age: 47

Hometown: Birmingham, AL

Occupation: Social Worker

What is Heart Gallery Alabama (HGA)?

Heart Gallery Alabama is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to finding forever families for children in Alabama’s foster care system by raising awareness and educating the public.

When did your chapter begin?

The Heart Gallery was founded on Valentine’s Day of 2005 with our first exhibit being displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art in November of that year. The Heart Gallery is a grassroots effort that was formed after a similar program started in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

What propelled you to start Heart Gallery Alabama?

My best friend, Karen Nomberg, read an article in Parade magazine that talked about the Heart Gallery of New Mexico. The children that had been featured in the NM Heart Gallery had received over 100 percent more inquiries from prospective families than those who were not in the exhibit. We were then motivated to bring this to Alabama so that we could help the children in our state find their forever families. At the time I was working as a social worker at Children’s Health System. I had two young children whom I had adopted from Russia. I had never considered adopting from DHR as I was “afraid” of the system. I chose to go to another country, which for some reason, seemed less scary. When I learned about a way that I could help children in our state get adopted, I jumped on it. How amazing that we could help a large amount of children that in the past would have been considered unadoptable (a word that I don’t believe in).

Tell us about your very own adopted family.

My husband, Seth, and I are the proud parents of two teenagers who were adopted as infants from Russia. Our son, Meyer, is 16 and our daughter, Raquel, is almost 14. Both of our children are athletic and very involved school and their community. I believe they are the reason that I am in the field of adoption. They have forever changed our lives, allowing us to parent and make a small impact on the world through their actions.

Can you explain the process of interviewing and photographing the children for Heart Gallery?

So, I am one of the luckiest people on earth as I get to meet each of the children that you see on the Heart Gallery. One of my favorite parts of my “job” is getting to know each child at their photoshoot and interviewing them. Each child is given a time slot where we treat them like a movie star; they are each given one-on-one attention where they can feel special and important. Their images and videos can be seen on our website. These images are presented in an exhibit that travels across the state of Alabama and is on display in various venues where potential families can learn more about them.

What is the current number of Alabama children in foster care?

As of Feb. 28, 2015, 5,002.

How many children are currently waiting for adoption in our state?

Approximately 330.

How many of those children do not have an identified family?

Approximately 256.

What is the success rate of finding forever homes for the children in Heart Gallery Alabama?

Since we started 10 years ago, we have photographed over 1,000 children and over 65 percent of those children are in permanent, loving families.

Although there are hundreds, would you be willing to share maybe one success story about the children and/or families you have connected?

It is hard to choose just one family—each family that has adopted is unique. We have had single parents who adopt and we have had families who adopted five children at once! One of the recent success stories that we have had is of a young single father who, as a teacher, reported neglect of one of his students. That child was removed from his classroom and placed in the system. As a result, this man became a foster parent and later adopted his foster son. Several years later he was on the Heart Gallery site, as he was looking for a brother for his son, when he sees the child that was his student. He had not known that this child was available for adoption. He is now his legal son.

What are the basic steps to adopt?

You can get that information on the home page of our website at HeartGalleryAlabama.com.

Mantra that you live by?

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” –Anne Frank

If you are interested in adoption through Heart Gallery Alabama, please visit their website, HeartGalleryAlabama.com, to meet the children of our state currently looking for their forever families.

Photo by Angela Karen

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