Picturing a Home

Najlah Feanny and Khalil
Feanny with 15-year-old Khalil, who was featured in her gallery’s second exhibit, 100 Waiting Children. The exhibit documented the children who have been on New Jersey’s adoption waiting list the longest. (Photo by Martin Schoeller)

Alum creates photographer-run organization to match foster children with adoptive parents

With every snap of the camera, freelance photographer and former Newsweek magazine contributor Najlah Feanny, JM 1983, helps another foster child find a permanent home.

As co-founder and president of the nonprofit Heart Gallery of New Jersey, Feanny and 200 volunteers have helped match more than 150 children with adoptive parents by capturing their “spirit and individuality” through portraits.

The organization places the photographs, along with video biographies, on its Web site and in a traveling gallery. It helps facilitate the adoption process by putting prospective parents in touch with New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), the government entity responsible for the state’s foster children.

“It has radically changed the face of adoption in New Jersey,” said Feanny, who recently won the $50,000 Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference. “For years, case workers were using their own pictures in dark hallways, and the kids looked like they had major problems. For the first time, people were seeing beautiful kids that they had never seen before.”

Feanny developed the program with Pim Van Hemmen, then assistant managing editor of photography at Newark’s The Star-Ledger, after reading about a similar project in New Mexico. Unable to imagine her then 4-year-old son Michael living in such unfavorable conditions, she contacted the DYFS, which she had previously covered in her photography. With $10,000 in seed capital from The Star-Ledger, the organization, which is funded by grants and private corporations and has an annual budget of $200,000, opened its debut exhibit in 2005.

“You could call her any time, day or night, and she would be working on something for the Heart Gallery,” said Erica Berger, JM 1979, the organization’s director of photography and a contributing photographer to People magazine.

Feanny’s goal for the first exhibit was to photograph five to 10 children. But with the help of 150 photographers whose work appeared in publications such as Time and Sports Illustrated (some of whom have won a Pulitzer Prize), they shot 346 portraits.

“People had no idea that there were thousands and thousands of kids up for adoption in New Jersey,” she said.

The Heart Gallery of New Jersey
The Heart Gallery of New Jersey" title="The Heart Gallery of New Jersey, created by Najlah Feanny, JM 1983, travels to a new location every few weeks. (Photo Special to the Communigator)

The group’s Web site drew 23 million hits in its first six months. It elicited so many inquiries from prospective parents, some from as far as France and Italy, that DYFS couldn’t return all of the calls, Feanny said. All this stemmed from an organization with no paid staff, operating from Feanny’s Clifton, N.J., home.

“Here are a group of photojournalists who are used to documenting history, and they are getting the chance to change history in dozens and dozens of lives,” Feanny said. “They were treating these children like they were movie stars or CEOs.”

The gallery, which travels to a new location each month, created a media buzz. NBC’s Today show featured the organization in 2005 and People magazine ran a four-page spread on it in May. The Star-Ledger ran a different child’s photograph every day until it featured every one.

One of them was 7-year-old Angel, who was found in an abusive home and needed to be placed immediately. Tamara Brown, an engineer from Eatontown, N.J., received the call from the DYFS.

“Three and a half hours later,” Brown recalled, “she was on my doorstep. [The photographs] were awe-inspiring. Every time I talk about it, [Angel] says I start crying. She’s sitting next to me right now telling me, ‘Don’t cry.’ ”

Feanny and her husband, Michael, have temporarily taken four foster children into their home since the program’s inception. The most recent child, Stanley, went home with the family at 8 months and stayed for more than a year.

Feanny expects to receive her master’s in fine arts from Parsons The New School for Design in New York City in May, after she finishes her thesis on the aging-out process – when children outgrow foster care at 18 or 21 without getting adopted.

She hopes to collaborate with videographers and writers for the gallery’s next project. “We thought it was a major success if one child got adopted,” she said. “With [151] getting adopted, it’s like, how do you turn away from it now?”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of communigator.