By Rennie Dyball
January 21, 2008 12:00 PM

Sisters Della, 16, and Dana, 14, have lived separately in foster homes “since forever,” they say. The girls dream of someday sharing one for-keeps family�and are pinning their hopes on the Heart Gallery of New Jersey’s “100 Waiting Children,” a photo collection of long-term foster kids. These portraits, shot by top photographers, are featured online (along with biographies and video interviews) and at exhibits throughout the state to move people to adopt them. It has worked before: In 2005 the Heart Gallery featured 346 of New Jersey’s hardest-to-place kids. Today 123 have been adopted; 59 more are in the process. Heart Gallery of New Jersey cofounder Najlah Feanny Hicks hopes to be just as successful with this group, most of whom are teenagers and will likely lose their chance at a family forever when they “age out” of the foster care system at 18. “People want infants�that’s just what adoption’s all about,” says Feanny Hicks. “But these are amazing children. And they haven’t given up hope.” Neither have the photographers, many of whom worked on the first project. “In 2005 people would say, ‘That child had a look,’ or ‘It was the way they stood,'” says Feanny Hicks. “They just needed to find one thing to connect with. And that was powerful.”


Della (right) and Dana may be sisters, but their styles couldn’t be more different. Dana fashions herself a sneakers-and-jeans girl; Della describes her look as “bright … like a highlighter. I like to stand out.” Their dreams? Also a study in contrasts. Della writes poetry; Dana wants to be an environmental conservationist like her hero, Jane Goodall. The mistreatment of animals, she says, “drives me crazy.”


One of the youngest of the 100, Eminy dreams of becoming a teacher. “I like kids,” she says. She’s also into math, music, swimming and bowling. “I like to get strikes,” says Eminy, “and meeting other people who like to bowl.”


In foster care since he was a toddler, Rashon has lived in more homes than he can count. But there’s one constant in his life: poetry. “I took a pencil after reading Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou poems, and I said, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this too.'” Over the past few years he has written 200 poems. And each time, “they get longer, deeper and more emotional.”


Marcus (left) begins: “Family means a lot to me because …” Brother Leonard (right) chimes in: “you always have somebody to back you up.” Brother Ezekial, who’s developmentally challenged and cannot speak, smiles and laughs along with them.


Ollie will never forget the moment he was saved at church. “I was kind of nervous,” he recalls. Still, “I took the walk of faith up there and I’m happy.” But the budding artist says something’s still missing: “All I wanted was a family. Someone I could call Mom, I could call Dad, I could call my brother and sister. But that never happened.”


William wishes the world understood foster kids better�and that adoptive parents would give teens a chance. “They think we’re brats,” he says. “But we just need support like everyone else.” Having lived in eight homes and attended countless schools, “I try to make friends,” he says, “and if I’m about to leave, I get their numbers so I can call them.” Asked about his happiest moment, he replies, “It hasn’t happened yet.”


“I’m not a follower and I’m not a leader,” says Tyler of his role at school. “I’m just a person who goes his own way.” Indeed, Tyler loves basketball (he’s a point guard on his team and idolizes NBA star LeBron James) but skips action flicks in favor of “emotional movies.”


After appearing in the 2005 gallery, Nadirah’s sister Zakirah, now 17, did not want to appear in it this year. So while her big sister remains in foster care, Nadirah, who loves fashion and dreams of being a singer, is going it alone.


When she grows up, Jazzie wants to be a model. And actress. And work with kids. And animals. Can she really do all that? “I can try!” she says. For her, a family means, “I can live with someone I feel safe and secure with.” The best part of having a family, she says, would be “spending time with each other. Knowing that you have someone there.”