COVID-19 disrupted a lot of goals this year – including Christie Erwin’s, who’s trying to reduce to zero the number of kids in Arkansas waiting to be adopted.

But like a lot of people, she and her organization, Project Zero, adapted.

Erwin, an adoptive mom herself, started the organization in 2011. It set new records each year through 2019, when it helped 196 young people find families. When 2020 began, her goal was 200, which would have left about 200 waiting.

Then COVID happened. Everyone in Arkansas battened down the hatches, reducing the number of prospective families. The fun events Project Zero hosts across the state where qualified families gather with waiting kids were cancelled. Instead of 200 adoptions, there were about 107, leaving about 329 waiting children at the moment.

Erwin was undaunted.

“We realized that just because we were all quarantined and all of that kind of thing didn’t change the fact that waiting kids were still waiting, and the fact that we couldn’t lose momentum and helping them find a family,” she said.

How did Project Zero help 107 kids find homes in a global pandemic? By using the same online tools others are using. The organization has partnered with the Division of Children and Family Services, the state agency that is responsible for those children, to produce “Zooming for Zero.” Erwin and DCFS Director Mischa Martin host the online show where qualified families can watch short films about waiting kids and hear from their adoption specialists. In the second part of the show, an approved family is featured so DCFS staff can learn about them.

The short films were an invaluable tool even before the pandemic occurred. Produced by filmmaker Nathan Willis, they let the children tell their stories in their own words. They can be viewed at Project Zero’s website, www.theprojectzero.org.

Sometimes the kids are engaging. One young man when asked what he would do if adopted paused and said, “I’d probably turn into a rainbow.” Erwin knew he’d hit a home run, and he was adopted. When 14-year-old Maegan was filmed in January, there were 18 inquiries within three days of the video’s posting.

But some of the kids aren’t funny or cute as they share their hurt and pain. One 16-year-old boy who was living in a shelter talked tough because he was tough. He wasn’t hateful, but he’d built up walls and said he didn’t expect to be adopted at his age. But he was.

“The bottom line is it’s risky when you allow kids to share their own truths,” Erwin said. “Sometimes it’s light and fluffy and it makes you laugh. Other times, it is almost unbearable to watch and to realize that in this beautiful country of ours with all of the opportunities we have and the blessings and the riches, quote-unquote, there are kids who have been through the unimaginable and who are wondering, does anybody care?”

Erwin will tell those kids’ stories until there are none left waiting. Project Zero is partnering with DCFS in a new initiative, Every Day Counts, with the goal of shooting a short film for every remaining child by the end of 2021. Each film costs $500, so $67,000 would pay for all of them.

Meanwhile, the organization is preparing for one of its biggest annual fundraising events, the Walk for the Waiting May 1, which for the second year will be virtual. The event raises money for Project Zero and two other organizations. The CALL in Arkansas recruits and trains foster and adoptive families. Immerse Arkansas works with young people who have aged out of the foster system or are facing a crisis.

Like the rest of us, Erwin is looking forward to the pandemic’s end. It will allow Project Zero to resume the in-person events that have helped many young people find their forever home. She hopes it can host its annual Back to School Bash in August.

Regardless, she will keep doing what she’s doing until her project has reached zero. To get there, she needs help from families, donors, DCFS, and, most importantly, the kids themselves.

“When we give kids a voice and we give them the opportunity to share their own stories, their own truths, in their own words and in their own way, it compels people to action,” she said.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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