"Oh, my word," Anthony said, his eyes lighting up as he saw that one of his gifts was an iPod Touch — one of many presents he received that day at his birthday party at a Little Rock restaurant.
What he really wants is a family.
The 15-year-old is one of more than 500 Arkansas children waiting to be adopted through the state’s Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He’s been in foster care since he was nine as a result of abuse and neglect, and he now lives in a group home.
DCFS employees try to find a home for every kid, but Anthony is special. Angela Newcomb, the area director over the county that works with him, has been working with the agency 17 years, but she’s no hardened state employee. Watching Anthony at the birthday party, and hearing him talk about his desire for a family, brought tears to her eyes.
"Anthony, he touches my heart because I know there’s got to be someone, someone that’s willing to take him in and love him like he needs to be loved and meet his needs," she said.
Anthony is loving and affectionate, but 15-year-olds are much harder to place than cuddly babies, and he was born premature and has some challenges to overcome. If no parent is found, he’ll age out of the system. There will be services available for him, but he will not have a family to offer love and support, which is why young people who age out often have a tough time in life.
The group Project Zero works with DCFS to find permanent families for kids like him. Originally known as the Pulaski County Adoption Coalition, it changed its name and ramped up its efforts in 2011. That first year, it connected 18 children with their adoptive parents. This year, it has made 113 connections. Its annual Candyland Christmas event the next day at Little Rock’s Fellowship Bible Church brought together 209 more waiting children and 67 prospective adoptive families, along with gifts and decorations and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus. The day before the birthday party, an adoption was finalized with the help of Project Zero for a 16-year-old named Adrianna who previously had endured two failed adoptions.
Project Zero sponsors an online Heart Gallery featuring photographs of waiting children at its website, theprojectzero.org, and also sponsors three traveling walls of photos that tour the state. It also produces recruiting videos for specific children. Prior to Anthony’s coming to Little Rock for his video Dec. 2, Christie Erwin, Project Zero’s executive director, learned it was his birthday.
"And so we thought, ‘What better way to help him feel special and loved than to throw a surprise birthday party?’ … We don’t know if he’s ever had a birthday party, so we’re just excited to see him feel loved today," she said.
Erwin wrote a post on her organization’s Facebook page asking for cards and gifts. By the day of the party, well-wishers from 33 states and three foreign countries had sent 139 cards and seven packages. By Dec. 5, cards and gifts had come from all 50 states and 13 foreign countries. He was stunned as he walked into the restaurant where the gifts, cards and a big birthday cake were waiting. "I look good," he said as he tried on a Razorbacks cap.
Prior to the birthday party, Anthony was interviewed for his recruiting video by documentarian Nathan Willis. He said he likes animals, math, basketball and football. He said he wanted "a brother and a sister, a mom and dad, and a dog" that he would name Toby. If he had a family, he would "go out to eat; have fun; spend the holidays together."
He was asked what he wanted people to know about him. Here’s how he summed it up.
"I’m smart," he said. "I know how to clean. I just want a home."
To see Anthony’s video, go to Project Zero’s Facebook page, TheProjectZero, and scroll down to the Dec. 5 post. Adrianna’s video was posted Nov. 29.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.