Besides being many other things – mom, author, Executive Director of Project Zero – Christie Johnson Erwin is a dreamer. She dreams of a world where children are loved and accepted and cared for. She dreams of communities full of families and individuals who ensure this happens. And she dreams of a day when the organization she founded folds and blows away for lack of children waiting for their forever home.
It’s an audacious, tantalizing, illogical, starry-eyed dream to be sure. But the best ones always are. And until it comes true, Project Zero will be there to help beat the drum for adoption in Arkansas.
“I’m not a real confrontational person by any means, but I feel like a warrior,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a battle that I’m not willing to step back from. I believe with all of my heart that zero is possible and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. Will it take all of us? Yes. Will it take crazy outside-the-box ideas? Yes. Will it take a lot of prayer and fighting and fierceness? Yes.
“Kids who are vulnerable, who need a voice, who need somebody to champion who they are and what they deserve, Project Zero was born out of that. That and the fact that so many people are unaware there are 117,000 kids in the United States of America who need a family today.”
Erwin puts the emphasis on today. Though in this fight for the long haul – she and her husband have spent more than 20 years as foster parents during which time they’ve encountered roughly 50 kids, adopting two of them – she’s impatient when it comes to finding kids a home. The stakes are too high and time is not on the child’s side.
“What’s going to happen if we don’t do what should?” she said. “When kids age out of foster care, we all know the statistics are horrendous for incarceration and drug addiction and pregnancy and lack of education. And the bottom line is these are our kids. In Arkansas or whatever state you live in, they are under our collective custody so they are kids that we need to be fighting for.”
“I think a lot of times people are well aware of kids who need families in other countries, but they’re just not as aware of the kids right here in our backyard who need families.”
It’s easy to sit back and admire Erwin’s commitment, her personal example and her relentless drive for what she considers her calling in life. But she’d rather you just sit up and pay attention, thank you very much, to the plight of the more than 300 kids who are right now adrift and devoid of the roots from which to sprout wings.
“When we started, I think our numbers were 600 to 700 [waiting kids] in Arkansas,” she said. “They’re down to like 363 now which is still way too many and still not zero, but we’re on the downward trend.”
One reason for the decrease is better coordination with the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services, the branch of Arkansas Department of Human Services responsible for kids remanded to the state’s custody. The other is Project Zero’s approach to bringing potential families face-to-face with the child they were meant to adopt and then supporting that union.
“What we were doing was not working,” she recalled. “We began to realize that we needed to be strategic in what we did, so we broke it down into three main focus points.”
The first of these points and the most visible is what Erwin files under raising awareness which Project Zero does through a variety of media. Waiting children are pictured on the Arkansas Heart Gallery along with a brief bio describing their likes, talents and challenges. Kids like Alexander, 13, whose first adoptive family was not the right fit, but who is hopeful and determined enough to invest in another. Or 11-year-old Hailey with the beautiful smile, who works every day to undo the damage of years of neglect, instability and emotional abuse.
As if looking into the eyes of these and other children wasn’t impactful enough, Project Zero decided to take it up a notch a few years ago.
“We took it a step further working with a filmmaker from New Orleans named Nathan Willis to produce short films featuring our waiting kids,” Erwin said. “That has proven to be a powerful genre. It not only is a photo, but it gives them a voice and the opportunity to share their own truths in their own way. Even if it’s a two-minute short film, it makes a difference.”
The second focus is building hope in the waiting kids. Every month, Project Zero conducts Connections Events which are like meet-and-greets between kids and prospective families. The events give each side the chance to size each other up and can range from a few kids in a given area of Arkansas to larger events involving kids statewide.
Through Project Zero, Erwin also helps facilitate positive experiences for kids from throwing birthday parties to shopping for prom dresses and recognizing other life milestones that many kids take for granted.
Finally, the organization focuses on solidifying connections between waiting kids and waiting families.
“That’s really about connecting them with the right waiting families, not just any old family,” Erwin said. “We want them to have the opportunity to be all they were designed to be. We work in close partnership with DCFS and I do a lot of one-on-one with families who are thinking about adopting, families who are in the process.”
As an adoptive and foster parent herself, Erwin shines in the capacity of informing families what they are getting into, even if her straightforward, unvarnished message isn’t of the fairy tale variety. She delivers the straight truth on the joys and the struggles adoptive families face.
“You won’t be able to handle it alone,” she says, point-blank. “I mean, you won’t. You will need to have support. You will need to have tools, education, post-adoptive, pre-adoptive. In the middle of it you will need to seek counsel. You will need to pray big.”
“Now, what is that going to cost me? A lot. But the way I feel about it is they are worth that unconditional love without considering how I’m going to protect myself. If we’re doing what we should be doing, we need to have every single foster and adoptive parent love that way because that’s the only way they’re going to heal and that’s the only way that they’re going to be able to move on.”
The May 4 Walk for the Waiting is a major source of the funds that support the work of Project Zero and their companion organizations Immerse and The Call. For registration information or to donate, please visit www.walkforthewaiting.org.
To learn more about Project Zero, make a donation or view waiting children via the Arkansas Heart Gallery, please visit www.theprojectzero.org.
To learn more about Alexander, please click https://www.theprojectzero.org/kids-1.php?id=8
To learn more about Hailey, please click https://www.theprojectzero.org/kids-1.php?id=99
To learn more about becoming a foster or adoptive household, please visit http://www.fosterarkansas.org/dcfs/fosterarkansas/.