North Dakota Heart Gallery exhibit opens at Heritage Center

Chuck Wickenhofer

The North Dakota Heart Gallery, a nonprofit organization which seeks to place children with adoptive families, opened an exhibit at Lake Region Heritage Center Monday night.

The exhibit, which will run through the end of May, highlights children from North Dakota who are in the foster care system.

“These are all North Dakota kids whose parental rights are terminated, so they’re legal orphans,” North Dakota Heart Gallery President Michelle Kommer said.

Kommer, who spent several years in Devils Lake as a child, has extensive experience with foster care.

“My husband and I were foster parents for ten years. We were very familiar with the child welfare system,” Kommer said. “We adopted one of our children from foster care, and there was a point in time where we (decided) we needed to stop being foster parents, because we live in Fargo and I quit my job to go to law school.

“We never did stop being foster parents, however,” Kommer continued. “We changed our minds after we had sold every baby thing that we had, and had to re-buy it.”

Kommer’s dedication to orphaned children helped inspire the idea for the North Dakota Heart Gallery, though she credits another foster parent for the original concept.

“We were looking for a way to not quit the children, even if we were quitting being foster parents,” Kommer said. “We saw a segment on the NBC Nightly News, the ‘Making a Difference’ segment, and it was Diane Granito and her heart gallery in New Mexico that was featured. We said, ‘That’s it, right there.’ ”

Granito’s heart gallery program got off of the ground in 2001, and Kommer’s similar North Dakota based organization began its mission in 2006.

The gallery displayed at the Heritage Center presents  about two dozen children who are in need of adoption.

“It is something that we’ve participated in for a couple of years, and having things like this really does help spread the word for kids (who) are up for adoption,” Lake Region Heritage Center Director Rachel Johnson said. “A lot of times you wouldn’t necessarily be able to meet them or learn about them, unless you happened to meet (a child) face to face. This is a really good way for people to learn about how to get involved and how to help the children.”

A handful of the children whose pictures are on display, however, have been lucky enough to find potential parents.

“When you see the red ribbon “Heart Connection Made,” that means that these kids are in an adoptive placement,” Kommer said. “That is the most obvious metric (for the program’s success).”

Kommer went on to explain more about the particulars of the organization.

“We’re not a business, we’re a nonprofit. Unlike most businesses that have metrics for success or key performance indicators, we don’t make a point to take credit for these adoptions,” Kommer said. “There are so many people behind the scenes: the social workers, the adoption agencies, the families that say yes. We have a rough estimate of how many children have been impacted by the heart gallery, but we don’t say that the heart gallery is responsible for 65 adoptions.

“That’s what makes us most happy; we’re an organization that says, ‘If we’re ever out of business, great,’ ” Kommer added. “What other business says that?”

Though Kommer is proud of the success of the North Dakota Heart Gallery over the ten years it has operated, she reports that the need for adoptive families has never been greater.

“We’re seeing, unfortunately, (that) our numbers have gone up,” Kommer said. “This was our biggest year, and we don’t like that, yet we like to be able to service as many kids as we can.”

According to Kommer, simply gaining a sponsor and being a part of the gallery is of benefit to the children involved in the program who have yet to be adopted.

“One of the things that we’re really proud of that’s evolved as a part of this organization is the experience (that) the kids have from being part of it,” Kommer said. “For the kids, the $250 (sponsorship) buys them a new outfit, and they get a portrait book of their photo session.”

It sounds perhaps inconsequential to those of us who have kids and take pictures of them all day long, every day,” Kommer continued. “What we learned is that these kids have never been the center of anybody’s attention.”