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SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - When Diane Granito was hired to recruit foster and adoptive parents in New Mexico, she was told to review the photos of children available for adoption.
The shots were "uniformly bad," Granito said.
She knew they had to be better if people were going to be drawn to adopt the children.
Granito, the adoption events manager for New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department, asked some of the state's most talented photographers to help capture the beauty and spirit of the state's foster children. A large-scale art show at a local gallery would help spread the word, she thought.
This weekend marks 10 years since the first exhibition of the Heart Gallery. There are now 130 different Heart Gallery organizations around the country, and two recently started in Ontario, Canada.
Granito recently launched a national organization, Heart Gallery of America, and hopes to expand in Europe.
That first exhibition of the Heart Gallery broke gallery records, drawing more than 1,200 people to Santa Fe's upscale Gerald Peters Gallery in a single evening. On display were 50 various-sized photos of children who had been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect and were looking for their forever families.
"When I walked into that gallery and saw all those beautiful portraits looking at me, I knew we were on to something," Granito told Reuters.
"The portraits were so powerful, I knew we were going to help these kids step out of the shadows."
Indeed, six children were matched with families that first night, including a group of three siblings and one child who was adopted by a photographer who was asked to take portraits.
Within a few years, news of success stories began to spread. Heart Gallery officials say 5,000 children have been adopted as a direct result of the photographic portraits.
"It's all about getting the message out that we have children here in the U.S. that need families," Granito said. "People have all these myths in their head about adoption: that it's expensive, that it's too difficult."
Nationally, about half a million children are in foster care, and about 119,000 of those cannot go home again because their parents' rights have been terminated, Granito said.
Jackie Mathey was in her second year volunteering for the Heart Gallery when she was asked to photograph a young girl who had just come into the system in Albuquerque.
"On the way back home from the shoot, I called Diane and said, 'I think I'm in trouble, I really fell for this girl,'" said Mathey, a Santa Fe photographer who went on to adopt 10-year-old Faye.
"I certainly wasn't looking for it or planning on it," Mathey told Reuters. "It's like falling in love. You don't expect it -- it just blindsides you."
When Faye arrived at the Mathey family's home, she was drawn to the piano, having never played one before. On Saturday, Faye, now just shy of 19, was to play her own piano composition as part of the Heart Gallery 10-year celebration.
"No one knew she had this beautiful music inside of her," Mathey said. "After nine years, I always wonder, what if she had landed in a home without a musical instrument and never had this opportunity?"
Ellen Covey and her sister Jane had fostered and adopted 12 children in New Mexico when they considered adopting one more.
"We got on the Heart Gallery website and there was Derrick," Ellen Covey told Reuters.
The photo showed a boy with wire-rimmed glasses and an easy smile looking over the pages of an open Spider-Man book.
"It was the picture that drew us to him, so we made the call," she said.
The sisters recently adopted another boy they saw in the Heart Gallery, 17-year-old Justin.
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton