Teen gets a surprise birthday party with gifts from 33 states, but is hoping for a family

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 138 views 

A 15-year-old had a surprise birthday party. He received an iPod, a Razorbacks hat and some other gifts.

What he really wants is a family.

The young man, Anthony, is one of more than 500 Arkansas children waiting to be adopted through the state’s Division of Children and Family Services. He was already traveling Friday from his home county to Little Rock to film a short parent recruiting video produced by Project Zero, a faith-based organization that works with DCFS to find adoptive families. Then Christie Erwin, Project Zero’s executive director, learned it was his birthday.

“And so we thought, ‘What better way to help him feel special and loved than to throw a surprise birthday party?’” she said.

Erwin wrote a post about Anthony on her organization’s Facebook page asking for birthday cards and gifts and had received 139 cards and seven packages from 33 states and three foreign countries. They were all waiting for him at David’s Burgers in Little Rock, where the party was held. Gifts were sent, too. His eyes really lit up when he saw the iPod.

“We don’t know if he’s ever had a birthday party, so we’re just excited to see him feel loved today,” she said.

Prior to his surprise party, Anthony briefly was interviewed for a child-specific recruiting video, which has proven to be an effective tool. One video led to a 16-year-old girl finding a new family after two failed adoptions; the adoption was finalized Thursday.

Anthony and Christie Erwin with Project Zero walk into a surprise birthday party.
Anthony and Christie Erwin with Project Zero walk into a surprise birthday party.

Anthony is affectionate. Erwin says he’ll hug her and stand so close that she calls him his bodyguard. But he was born prematurely and has some challenges. Six years ago, he was placed in foster care because of parental abuse and neglect. He’s been moved around a lot and lives in a group home with other boys. His siblings have been adopted, which makes his situation especially difficult.

Answering questions for the video, Anthony said he likes animals, math, basketball and football. He said if he had a family, he would “go out to eat; have fun; spend the holidays together.”

“I want a brother and a sister, a mom and dad, and a dog. … I’m going to name him Toby. … I’m smart. I know how to clean. I just want a home,” he said.

Older teenagers are harder to place. Angela Newcomb, the DCFS area director over the county that works with him, said the agency will use data matching tools to find a fit, but it’s looking for any loving, willing family. She’s been doing this 17 years, but Anthony is special. She says anyone who’d like to adopt him, or any other child, can call her at 870-534-4200, ext. 101, or email her at [email protected]

“Anthony, he touches my heart because I know there’s got to be someone, someone that’s willing to take him in and love him like he needs to be loved and meet his needs,” she said.

If a home isn’t found, Anthony will age out of the system. If that happens, he could face a difficult future. According to Immerse Arkansas, an organization that works with aging out foster children, 40% experience homelessness by age 24, and 58% become parents themselves.

In an effort to find adoptive parents, Project Zero sponsors a “Heart Gallery,” an online photo collection and three walls of photos of children that travel the state. The group originally was known as the Pulaski County Adoption Coalition before changing its name in 2011 and ramping up its efforts. The first year, Project Zero made 18 connections. So far this year, it’s made 113.

On Saturday, Project Zero was to host 350 children for a Christmas party at Little Rock’s Fellowship Bible Church. There was to be lots of gifts along with decorations, a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, and, most importantly, prospective families who already have been approved for adoption and are looking for a child to give a home. Eighteen children connected with their forever families at last year’s event.

“We have a catchphrase: One plus one equals zero. One child plus one family equals zero kids waiting,” Erwin said.