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‘Heart Gallery’ adoption exhibit open at Besser Museum

News Photos by Darby Hinkley Stacey Gildner smiles big as she holds her newly adopted son, Gavin, whom she and her husband have fostered since he was 24 hours old.

ALPENA ­– “Michigan Heart Gallery” will likely pull at the heartstrings of visitors to Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. The exhibit opens today and will be on display all month.

“The ‘Heart Gallery’ is a traveling exhibit that we are fortunate to bring here to Alpena to highlight the children in foster care waiting for an adoptive family,” said Stephanie Dettloff, executive director of Child and Family Services of Northeast Michigan in Alpena.

The agency serves 11 counties in Northeast Michigan, providing support to foster children and families, as well as addressing concerns such as child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, the breakdown of family relationships, chilhood homelessness, and those with special needs.

One of the brightest spots in the life of a foster child, as well as their family and the child welfare workers, is the day they are adopted into a “forever home.”

“It makes my job worth it,” said Julie Quessenberry, adoption worker and “rock star,” according to Dettloff. “It makes the stress of the job worth it.”

Tiffany Eddinger, Child and Family Services of Northeast Michigan child welfare supervisor, and Julie Quessenberry, adoption worker, stand with one of the panels in the “Michigan Heart Gallery” traveling exhibit, on display this month at Besser Museum.

“It’s always rewarding to see that the kids are in a safe, comfortable place,” said Tiffany Eddinger, child welfare supervisor. “Whether it is a return home to the families, when they’ve made the progress that the families have made, or if it’s an adoptive home. And, just to know that they are going to flourish and just really have a good future.”

She said working through trauma is not easy, but that when the children are placed in a stable environment, it is worth the challenge.

“When we see the kids be able to have that stability that a family provides, it makes … everything a little bit better,” Eddinger added. “It’s a lot, but in the long run, it’s always rewarding.”

Eddinger said she hopes community members check out the “Heart Gallery.”

“It’s a really good way to bring awareness to the children in the foster care system that need adoptive homes,” she said.

Dettloff said the need is great, with 13,000 children and teens currently in foster care across Michigan.

She said currently in the agency’s 11-county coverage area, there are 15 children in foster care, but that number fluctuates, and the need is constant.

“Right now, we’ve had a lot of youth transition from foster care to adoption,” she said. “Sometimes, we’ve been as high as 42 over the last few years.”

Foster parents are in short supply in our area.

“We’re looking for foster homes,” Dettloff said. “There is a huge, huge, huge need in our region for foster home providers, because we have more children in placement, and, unfortunately, if we don’t have foster homes, we are looking at placing children in residential programs, which we really don’t want to have happen, or placing them outside of their community, because we don’t have any established homes here.”

Foster children need safety, stability, and security.

“Our goal, really, is to increase the number of foster homes to ensure that as parents are working towards reunification with their children, dealing with barriers that they’ve encountered, and life circumstances, either having a temporary place for those children to go to while the parents are working through that, or sometimes, if that’s not possible, making sure that children really have that lifeline of safety and permanency, sooner rather than later,” Dettloff said.

She said the purpose of this exhibit is to bring to light the children that need placement in foster homes and “forever homes.”

“A lot of our teens don’t have identified homes, and I think sometimes there’s a real misconception,” Dettloff said. “That’s a harder population to place, and I think sometimes there’s some stereotypes and myths about behaviors and things like that.”

She said there may be challenges, but being equipped with information is the key to facing any issues that may arise.

“The more people become aware of trauma-informed practices and experiences, and things like that, and reach out for resources in the community to those who can assist, it makes that a lot easier for both the adoptive parents and the youth going through that,” Dettloff said.

Stacey Gildner is the proud adoptive mom of Gavin, 15 months. She and her husband Kirk were foster parents of Gavin since he was 24 hours old, and were able to adopt him on March 23.

The Gildners were originally planning to adopt a female teenager, but that ended up not working out, so they opened their hearts to being foster parents. And they are so blessed to have Gavin.

She said adoption day felt “unreal.”

“It’s still a little unreal to me, I think,” Gildner said.

She added that he is ahead of the curve developmentally, and he is a healthy, happy boy.

“He’s always in a good mood,” Gildner said.

She said the process can take longer than you want it to, based on a wide variety of factors, including the status of the biological parents, as well as the level of involvement of the child welfare worker assigned to your case.

Gildner and her husband are so relieved and delighted to finally call Gavin their own son, which makes the entire process worth every minute.

“The process really was smoother than we expected it to be,” Gildner noted. “All of our workers were really helpful, they were on the ball. They answered questions, and they usually would get back with me within 24 hours when I had a question.”

She said not all adoptions go as smoothly as theirs.

“I’ve been told that our adoption process was the exception, and not really the rule,” Gildner said.

For that, they are grateful.

“I love Child and Family (Services),” she added. “I love that we came here rather than trying somewhere else.”

She can’t say enough about how happy they are to have Gavin.

“We got really, really, really lucky,” she added. “He slept through the night at two weeks, and he’s never had a problem after that. He eats good, he plays good, he’s always happy.”

“Julie Quessenberry, who is our adoption, I call her our ‘rock star’ here, she does an amazing job with our adoptive families, and knows policy, understands policy, along with our child welfare supervisor, Tiffany Eddinger, to really provide that support to families and move the adoption process along as quickly as we can,” Dettloff said. “Sometimes there’s hoops and barriers with regard to processes and things like that, but we’ve been fortunate over the last couple years to really have a lot of children be placed with their forever home, and have those adoption finalizations.”

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