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Shooting For Hope: How One Photo Changed This Foster Teen’s Life

May 2, 2014
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Shooting For Hope: How One Photo Changed This Foster Teen’s Life
Older foster kids often do not get to experience the love of being adopted. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A photographer's good deed gave 16-year-old Deon a new outlook and a new life.

“A picture is worth a 1,000 words,” is a maxim that’s taught us the power of imagery. But that doesn’t always resonate when a picture fails to capture its subject.

For a 16-year-old foster child, that seemed to be part of the problem. Deon, a teen born and raised in Yakima, Washington, has spent most of his childhood in and out of foster care since the age of 5. Last year, he gave up finding a family, expecting his final years in the foster care system to wind down.

In most states, foster children become responsible for themselves when they turn 18. While some agencies provide job training programs or workshops to build resumes, most of these children are thrust into adulthood without any support or stability. In fact, more than 27,000 of the 400,000 children in U.S. foster care leave the system without any family or support, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau.

“It’s pretty frightening for them because they really are just pretty much on their own,” said Amber Louis, a recruitment and outreach specialist for the Northwest Adoption Exchange in Seattle.

But that all changed for Deon, who thanks to a photographer’s eye, found a new outlook on life.

Jennifer Loomis, a family photographer based in Seattle, was scrolling through photos of children on adoption sites when she realized how poor their quality was.

“I was so blown away by how bad the photos were that I thought, ‘Oh my God, these photos don’t show these kids at all,'” she told CNN. “I can’t get a sense of who these kids are.”

Loomis contacted the Northwest Adoption Exchange, and Louis quickly responded. Loomis enlisted another photographer, Rocky Salskov, arranging a two-day photo shoot to capture the spirit of seven children between ages 9 and 17 who are looking for a home. Deon was fortunate enough to be selected.

“I wanted photos where you could look into their eyes and see into their soul a little bit better, where you could be like, ‘Wow, Deon, what a guy,’ ” she said.

MORE: Foster Kids Need One Thing to Succeed in School. A Former Teacher’s Goal Is to Give It to Every Single One

It worked. Joanna Church always wanted to adopt an older child and she began her search after her husband, Sean Vaillancourt, a sonar operator for the Canadian Navy, agreed. Church first spotted Deon’s old photo on a website and skipped past it, but after seeing his newfangled shot on the Northwest Adoption Exchange, she was captivated.

“You saw…personality in the face, like you saw it coming off the page and it was enough to get us to stop and open that profile and look at it it, and want to get to know Deon better,” Church said.

Deon moved in with Church and Vaillancourt in October, and the adoption process soon followed.

“They’ve really given me a new look on life,” he said. “Instead of feeling just like that I’m all alone, I actually feel like I have somebody there for me.”

Church and Vaillancourt are helping Deon with obtaining Canadian citizenship to prepare for their move to Victoria, British Columbia, in August. Deon, who had trouble in school, has since improved his grades, joined the track team and is learning to drive. The couple is also dedicated to ensuring their new son keeps in touch with his biological family — including his great grandmother who has taken care of him over the years.

When you give someone a chance, it can change their life forever, Deon said. “You are basically saving a life.”

As for the new parents, the relationship has led Church to become an advocate for adoption, sharing her good fortune to raise awareness about older kids waiting for homes. She often hears that parents are nervous about the uncertainty that comes with older children, she adds.

“And my response is always, you [don’t] know what kind of kid you’re going to get when you birth them,” she said.

Vaillancourt contends it’s about giving someone else a chance.

“We’ve all had our chances, from our parents, from somebody looking out for us, and these [kids] have nobody looking out for them.”

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