Christie Erwin has hugged a lot of foster kids, but never while they were in the middle of being interviewed for a short film in hopes of being adopted.
That changed last year when a 15-year-old who was asked on camera what was hoped for in a family, responded by saying, “I want to be able to hug somebody,” and then started crying.
Tatum had not been hugged in four years. Erwin, filmmaker Nathan Willis, and the photographer immediately stopped filming and fulfilled the wish, if only for that moment.
Erwin is the founder of Project Zero, which promotes adoptions of foster kids in Arkansas through events where kids mingle with prospective parents, and through those roughly four-minute films. You can watch them at theprojectzero.org.
Foster children have been removed from their biological homes by the state Division of Children and Family Services because of their parents’ abuse, neglect, drug abuse or other situations. The children live with temporary foster parents, relatives or in group homes while DCFS tries to help the parents reach a different place. Some parents eventually lose custody. When that happens, the state tries to find the children a permanent home with help from Project Zero and other groups.
Erwin came to her calling after serving as a foster mom for 19 years. She wrote a book, “The Middle Mom – How to Grow Your Heart by Giving It Away,” and with husband Jeff adopted two children. She started Project Zero in 2011 after volunteering with another group. She had attended an event in Texas where a pastor said if Christians would do their duty, there would be zero waiting kids. She couldn’t shake that idea, which led to Project Zero.
In 2022, Project Zero helped connect 115 waiting young people with their adoptive families. Its “record” is 195, set in 2019 before COVID slowed its recruiting efforts the past three years. The year 2022 was halfway over before Project Zero hosted its first big event, its annual Disney Extravaganza. Erwin said the numbers also were down from their peak because there aren’t as many waiting children – 292 when we talked – as there were when she started the organization.
Despite last year’s challenges, Project Zero enjoyed some wonderful successes. The Disney Extravaganza led to 38 kids being adopted, including two 17-year-olds, a hard-to-place age. Last year, a childless couple adopted six kids, and they are in the process of adopting their infant sibling.
A young man, Steven, was adopted after bouncing around the system for 10 years and four months. Erwin saw him with his parents shortly before Christmas.
“It was just so amazing to see him – typical teenage boy with the banter back and forth with his dad and his mom, but yet it was just so beautiful to see that never again will he be waiting,” she said. “You know, he’s home.”
Erwin said the parents will provide him the help he needs. Coming from a messed up biological family, being forcibly removed, and then living in a succession of temporary homes can be traumatic for all these children. Adoptive parents must be prepared to help them heal and then thrive.
Some kids never find a family. One young man was in foster care from age 9 until he aged out. Erwin saw his prison mug shot the other day.
That kind of thing is gut wrenching. She feels like a failure. But she’s also grown to accept that her calling means she’ll be riding a roller coaster.
“It’s hard, and it’s emotional, and it’s not just, and it’s frustrating, but these kids are worth the fight, and they’re worth my emotions being all over the place, and they’re worth the sleepless nights or whatever it is, the mountains of prayers and the events and the money and all of that,” she said. “And so I think that’s the answer. They’re worth fighting for.”
Erwin is looking forward to her first full year of events since the pandemic began, starting with a February Fun Day at First Baptist Church in Little Rock. An event is planned for Fort Smith in April and another could occur in Jonesboro after that.
She’s not really trying to break her record of 195 adoptions in a year. She’s got bigger things in mind.
“I think our main goal is we just want to be closer to zero than ever before,” she said. “And my dream is to have more families waiting to adopt than kids waiting to be adopted.”
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.