Margie Chop is a registered nurse and the single mother of four daughters. Two of those daughters are adopted and the other two — 12-year-old Daniece and 17-year-old Ann — are sisters living with Chop as foster children.
The family is one of many subjects of a photo exhibit that opened Thursday and will run through Nov. 30 across San Mateo County.
The exhibit is intended to send a message that there is a big need for foster and adoptive parents, and those who sign up can find the experience deeply rewarding.
The Bay Area Heart Gallery features photos of children in need of foster care and adoptive homes, and it highlights some local families that were brought together to help meet those needs, said Gary Beasley, the county's director of children and family services.
"Sometimes when we're looking at adoption, the greatest pool of adoptive parents come from our foster parents. Sometimes permanence becomes something foster parents get warmed up about," Beasley said. "Then you've got these families who just don't consider it — you have mom, dad, two-and-a-half kids already in place. It's those families we think the gallery would inspire to consider bringing a child into their home."
As an adoptive and foster mother, Chop said, "You shouldn't hold back from bringing an older child into your home. They're just like all kids — they need to be loved in order to do well in the world."
Chop, who lives in San Mateo, said she grew up with one biological sister but 10 siblings total, all on a Kansas wheat farm. Her parents took in child after child as friends and neighbors went through tough times. She said the experience of raising the children of others isn't as strange or hard an experience as some might expect.
"As long as you love kids, it doesn't really matter, because their peers make the biggest difference anyway," she said. "As long as you help them find really solid friends and get to know their parents, get them involved in sports or other activities. As long as you keep kids active, they're going to be fine."
Many people have thought about foster parenting or adoption but didn't know how to learn more about it, Chop said.
"The support you get from the county of San Mateo is phenomenal," she added. "I can pick up the phone at any point and call at least three people to say, 'This is what's going on, what do I do now?' ... They make it very easy and very simple. You just have to be willing to open up your heart and your home."
The problem of transient children is an important one throughout the county, Beasley said.
"In our children of color, especially, we have a pool of older kids, which are traditionally a harder population to find adoptive homes for," he said.
The gallery has come to San Mateo County three years running, and organizer Amanda Kim said it proves to be an audience-grabber every time.
"You see people wandering through the gallery for a long time," she said.
"The photos aren't the preconceptions people have, and they replace that with positive images that are more accurate about who these children are."
"There is a stereotype about that, and a strong stereotype," she added. "In TV programs, a common theme is to have a foster child go ballistic somehow. I think all families and all children require a certain degree of care and consistency."
Kim also encouraged parents to bring their children to the gallery.
"They're fascinated by this exhibit," she said.
In a deep recession, many families may be struggling to pay their own bills, but Beasley said that's a reason to get more involved, not less.
"We can talk about what funding options would be available," he said.
"It is a good feeling — you're making a contribution to the economy when you know the consequences of these kids not having a home as they age out of the system."
Through Nov. 30. Admission free. Galleries open during each location's normal business hours.
San Mateo County will hold a free public reception for the exhibit at 7 p.m. today on the second floor of the San Carlos Library, 610 Elm St. County Supervisor Mark Church will attend, along with several adoptive and foster families.