By RUTH LILJENQUIST
Nearly every day, Tricia Quiroz, program director for St. Nicholas Adoption Center, receives the file of another child in need of a loving and stable adoptive home—a child living in foster care whose relationship with his or her parents has been severed because of abuse or neglect. Many such children are adopted by family members or their foster families, but for those who are not, Tricia and her team take on the challenge of finding just the right family. It’s no easy task, especially when children are older and in sibling groups, but Tricia has found something that makes it easier—a “life book.”
With the help of dedicated volunteers, Aviva Children’s Services, a non-profit organization that serves children in foster care, has been making life books for children since 1995. And now, St. Nicholas is working with Aviva to have life books made for the children they are trying to place.
Each life book, made up of scrapbook styled pages placed in a large 3-ring binder, tells the child’s life story, explaining the reasons why the child is no longer with their birth family, but also celebrating the child’s birth, accomplishments, qualities and talents, and positive experiences and relationships. The life books help children understand and share their own stories and help prospective families get to know the children they might adopt.
Aviva’s Cindy Lingel has been directing the Life Book Project since 1996 and has seen how much the children cherish the books. “These kids never had baby books. Their birthdays weren’t celebrated. They rarely had their pictures taken,” said Cindy. “So they become very attached to their life books.”
Cindy organizes small groups of two or three volunteers to work on each book. The volunteers start out by reviewing the case file, interviewing the children about their experiences, and developing a narrative of the events that resulted in the child’s placement in foster care.
“We try to tell each child’s story in a sensitive, accurate, and truthful manner, which helps the kids organize things in their minds. They often have gaps in their memory or understanding of what happened, and this helps them make sense of it,” said Cindy.
The volunteers also reach out to former foster families, case workers, therapists, current and former teachers, and other people important in the child’s life, asking them to submit letters that share positive memories and thoughts about the child.
“When the children read these letters, it builds their self-esteem. They see that people remember them and that they care, that there is a safety net for them,” said Cindy.
Volunteers then look for photos, which can often be hard to come by, and track down interesting and fun facts about the child’s birth place and birth date. They also ask the children what kind of family they want and what they hope to do with their lives. When all the information and materials are gathered, the volunteers put together colorful and creative scrapbook pages and order them in the life book binder.
Having seen how valuable the books are and how the children cherish them, Tricia and Cindy are working together to recruit volunteers to help make life books for St. Nicholas kids. Because it takes between 100 and 150 hours to create one life book, more volunteers are needed to complete the books. Right now, St. Nicholas has 87 children that need life books.
“My goal is that every child we serve will have a life book,” said Tricia. “We have kids coming in every week, and with that many kids, there is an ongoing need for help in creating the books. We understand that not everyone can adopt a child, but people can help by making life books.”
While this unique project requires a significant commitment of time and effort, it is a rewarding project, said Cindy. “It is a wonderful volunteer experience, truly meaningful for the volunteers. They really get into it, and it shows. The books are beautiful. They take my breath away. And the children love them.”
For more information
If you are interested in adoption or in becoming a Life Books volunteer, call Venessa Sanchez at (520) 745-8791 ext. 118 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you live outside of the Tucson area, St. Nicholas can put you in touch with CCS agencies in your area that provide adoption services and make life books. St. Nicholas and Aviva will also gladly accept donations of scrapbooking supplies.