Nearly three years ago, I started working at Ampersand Families as the Coordinator of the Minnesota Heart Gallery. At the time, I was a sophomore in college and while I thought the position sounded pretty interesting, I was mostly excited to add an internship onto my resume. I had no idea what an impact the experience would make on my life and my future.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Minnesota Heart Gallery, let me fill you in. The Minnesota Heart Gallery is an outreach program run by Ampersand; it provides free, professional portrait sessions to youth in the MN foster care system. As the coordinator of the Heart Gallery, I received photo shoot requests from social workers and adoption recruiters who were working with youth in every corner of the state. I would pair those youth up with a professional photographer in their area who would volunteer their time to do the photo session.
After the photo sessions, the resulting images were used in a few ways. The youth or sibling group would receive digital copies of portraits from the session, and these were often treasured; youth in foster care often don’t have many pictures of themselves (much less personality-capturing, professional-quality portraits!) and the portrait sessions could be very fun and empowering experiences for these youth. The youth’s adoption recruiter would also receive a copy of images from the session, and they used these images as they worked to find a permanent family for the youth. Lastly, the Minnesota Heart Gallery also received a disk of images from the session. We used these images on our website, Facebook page, publications, and in a traveling photo display to raise awareness about the need for permanent families for older youth in the foster care system, using these portraits to represent an often invisible population.
Receiving the disks of pictures was always my favorite part of coordinating the Minnesota Heart Gallery. I worked remotely from Ampersand’s office most of the time, and I never met any of the youth that I was coordinating Heart Gallery sessions for; when I received their pictures and finally got to put a face to each youth’s name, it felt like a present! I’d be thinking about and planning for these youth’s sessions abstractly, and when I would receive their pictures and get to look at their images, I’d suddenly have a face and a personality to connect them to. I often hope that this is how viewers of the Minnesota Heart Gallery website or Facebook page felt as well, and that seeing the portraits of these youth could connect them to Ampersand’s cause of finding permanent homes for Minnesota youth.
Working as the Heart Gallery Coordinator taught me a lot of life lessons. I’ve learned the empowering ability of a photo session for teens who haven’t had one before. I’ve learned how awesome volunteer photographers can be—we have over 200 volunteer photographers in the Minnesota Heart Gallery, and they are so passionate about using their skills for a good cause. I’ve gained perspective on what a privileged childhood I had, nestled in a loving and supportive family. I’ve also been blessed to be part of a small, passionate, thoughtful, and powerful organization: it’s been inspiring to observe the commitment and care of all the AmperStaff as they work hard to really make a difference in the lives of the youth they work with. I’ve decided that I’d like to pursue a similar career in my future, and I plan to go to graduate school to attain a Master’s degree in Social Work.
Back at the beginning of my time at Ampersand, I had no idea that my ‘pretty interesting’ internship would become a job that I felt so passionate about, or how proud I would become to be able to be part of Ampersand Families. After nearly three years of coordinating the Minnesota Heart Gallery, I’ve now graduated from college and have moved out to Boston to begin the next phase of my life. Reflecting on my time coordinating the Heart Gallery as a part of Ampersand, I am filled with gratitude to have been part of such a meaningful organization.
Wishing you a peaceful and love-filled holiday season,