Denise Russell, WACAP’s “A Family for Me” program coordinator, shares about the behind-the-scenes magic of seeing children’s stories take shape, and then touch the hearts of the families that become theirs.
“A Family for Me – Little Miracles in Each Video”
Before I jumped into the car and drove to our latest video shoot, I scrambled around the house looking for two missing pieces to the game of “Trouble.” They are among those items that appear whenever I’m looking for anything else, but would seemingly hide if I specifically searched for them. But mini-miracles tend to hang around our “A Family for Me” program; and before I knew it, the missing-in-action pegs (one green, one blue) peeked out among the miscellaneous clutter in a box marked “stuff.”
The “Trouble” game troops all present and accounted for, I proceeded with the rest of my checklist: setting up GPS, quickly rereading a profile, grabbing a snack, and throwing the now intact “Trouble” game into my carry bag. Preparing for video shoots is kind of down to a science now, except for the important fact that I never really know what a child is going to say or do.
The video shoot for this particular day was a little less complicated than many. But no matter the set-up, a lot of thought goes into the game plan. What are the interests of the child I’m going to meet? How can we provide a fun, lasting memory? What places and activities will allow children to express who they are, and allow viewers to see them for who they are, while asking themselves, “Could this child be my child?”
Finding these important places and experiences that embrace the children and capture the attention of those adults that may become their permanent family – that’s part of my journey.
Sometimes, I’ll a send a seemingly random email to the entire WACAP staff, reading, “Does anyone know someone who has a bowling alley in their house?” or “Does anyone know an expert in metal detection?” Or I’ll reach out to businesses with a request, such as this: “We need a secure, indoor venue for a child with special needs, who loves remote control cars. Can we use your soccer facility?” (The answer is almost always, “Yes.”) Over the past few years, we’ve introduced kids to race cars, Naval destroyers, dirt biking, parkour, Lego masters, artists, musicians, dance instructors, chefs, and so much more!
But on this Saturday, the planning was more about strategic availability. Our goal was to meet up with three siblings, who lived a distance apart but were gathering for an event taking place at a school later that morning. We didn’t know when the opportunity to see them together would come again. So, two amazing care workers, one of our fantastic videographers, and I were all simultaneously packing up our gear (and kids) and preparing to hit the road.
As it turns out, this trio of kids represented the population of foster children who need advocates: older kids, kids with special needs, and siblings. And like many of the kids who share their stories through “A Family for Me,” this was not their first video. Two years earlier, I met them when Yuen Lui studios allowed us video tape one of their donated photo sessions. The kids were all dressed in lovely clothes and were the epitome of sweetness. Now, a couple years later, they were a little spunkier (in a good way) and very much becoming their own people. In fact, one of them was now a teenager.
Now the challenge was finding a way to provide an activity that highlighted their interaction and offered a little fun for a 13, 10 and 8-year-old… at a school, on a cloudy day. My plan was to keep things fun and uncomplicated, which is why I brought the board game. The two older kids seemed to enjoy some game time, but Little Sister wasn’t having it. She had no interest in “Trouble” or sitting in on the interview, while I chatted with her siblings. Luckily, we’ve become pretty good at spontaneous Plan B’s.
I knew from Little Sister’s profile that music lit up her world. I quickly asked her brother and sister if there were any songs they all like to sing together. The two started singing “Despacito.” Without skipping a beat, our videographer whipped out her phone and hit Play. It happened to be the top song on her playlist. Little sister stood up, and began smiling and swaying with her brother and sister. Meanwhile, the clouds parted, the sky cleared, and we went out to capture some sunny, playground video. Another mini-miracle.
But the true beauty of this video shoot would be in the interview, where big Sister and Brother talked about how much they wanted to be all together, what it was like to have a sister with special needs, and how very seriously they felt about taking care of each other. Sometimes, the miracles are just in the words these incisive, resilient kids are able to express.
It’s a tall order, asking if a family is ready to parent older kids, kids with special needs, or siblings… yet we were shooting a video in the hopes that a family will take on all of these challenges in one big energetic package.
Still, we’ve seen amazing things come out of these videos. We’ve cheered as a 17-year-old’s story reached the right family, just before the teen “aged out” of the foster care system. We’ve seen the last child out of his 6 siblings join a permanent family. And we’ve celebrated that a child who used a computer to speak now has a family to help him find his voice.
To date, seven kids we’ve featured with significant special needs, as well as ten groups of siblings, have found families. And kids whose first video reflected their innocent curiosity, found that it was their third video (capturing a more somber, reflective teen) that still managed to find the heart of the right family.
I’ve now had the privilege of interviewing well over 100 kids about who they are and the family they hope to have. And in cases where kids weren’t able to speak with me verbally, the videos allowed a chance for them to share about themselves nonverbally, showing their unique interests and personalities — while I was also able to interview an adult who spoke on their behalf, as well (always with incredible grace and compassion).
It’s been amazing. But we couldn’t do this without the help of all those caseworkers, recruiters, care workers, foster parents, businesses, organizations, and videographers. We owe such a huge thank you to KING 5’s Joyce Taylor and editor Mike Blakey for turning our footage into powerful features. They introduce the community to the kids during the broadcast, but then provide us with the video links that will be clicked on over and over, as families meet these children. So far, 90 “A Family for Me” kids have found their families.
It feels like a little bit of a miracle.
About WACAP’s “A Family for Me Program Coordinator,” Denise Russell: Since joining WACAP in 2013, Denise has coordinated adoption outreach videos for close to 120 foster children. An adoptee herself, Denise feels a special connection with every child she meets. Interacting daily with the dedicated foster child community and committed organizations that support WACAP’s efforts, she says it feels often like mysterious forces are also lending a hand to help. Outside of work, Denise enjoys “laughing a lot with her handy and hard-working husband, hanging out with their entertaining and opinionated sons, and the appreciating the goofiness of the family’s two Labradors.” Oh, and she loves a good movie!