Down to the roots

Tree becomes artistic metaphor for foster care youths' search for family roots

July 02, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • Danica Gunjak, a South Hagerstown High School graduate, won the Family Finding art contest. She is not a foster child; the contest was open to all teens in Washington County.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer,

A student exhibit on view at the Washington County Arts Council will reflect a basic human need: Knowing where you come from.

High school and middle school students used the family tree as an artistic metaphor for an exhibit titled "Family Finding," on view at the Washington County Arts Council's North Gallery, said Mary Anne Burke, WCAC's executive director of the downtown Hagerstown arts organization.

The exhibit is named for and was coordinated by the Family Finding Program of the Washington County Department of Social Services. Finding Family helps foster children reunite with blood relatives. The intention was to draw empathy from the young artists they could see what it's like for foster children. The students who created the work on display at the arts council were not in the foster system, said Karen Christof, Washington County Department of Social Services' assistant director for Adult, Child and Family Services.

"What we wanted from this art show was to engage the community, in this case, peers, and make them aware that there are foster children out there," Christof said.


The exhibit was structured as a contest, said Tiffany Lowe, the family services program manager at the county department of social services. Of the nearly 200 entrants, 19 semifinalists were chosen.

Prizes were awarded for first, second and third prize. South Hagerstown High School graduate Danica Gunjak created the winning poster for the contest.

"I wanted it to be really colorful and exotic looking," said Gunjak, 18, of Hagerstown.

Born in Serbia, Gunjak said she is the child of immigrants. Her mom, Momirka Subotic, and dad, Nedeljko Gunjak, brought her to the United States when she was 6.

Gunjak was honored as among the hundreds of Washington County high school graduates to earn a GPA of 3.7 or higher. Gunjak said she has no aspirations to become an artist.

"I'm moving back to Serbia next year to study medicine in Belgrade," said Gunjak, who lives in Hagerstown with her mother.

The program

The Family Finding program targets youths ages 14 to 21 who are in foster care.

Lowe said that in the past, youths leave foster care at age 18 or 21 without a support network.

"Life is just as hard after 18 as it was getting to 18," Lowe said. "People need connections throughout their entire lifespans. We're looking at building those relationships for them."

Christof said that often, the attention goes to the efforts of adopted children who search for their birth parents. She said the same need is there for kids who remain in foster care until they age-out of the system. There were 86 foster children between 14 and 21, Christof said, comprising nearly half of Washington County's foster children.

"This is an opportunity for them to have those same kind of resources that the adopted can get because it's almost a given that adopted children will look for their birth parents," Christof said.

Tammie Campher, a Family Finder in Washington County, said she has a case load of 10 youths. Campher said the department of social services targets youths who have few if any familial connections, though it's ultimately up to the foster child to decide whether they want to find blood relatives.

Campher said that since the program's inception in January, there have been two youths who've made contact with blood relatives. She said there were others who are in the initial stages of meeting relatives.

Campher said that young people in Washington County's foster system would receive a reproduction of Gunjak's piece and other pieces from the exhibit with an additional set of leaves. The idea is for the youths to add leaves to the trees each time they find a family member.

"I'm very humbled by that, knowing that my artwork will actually help someone and inspire them to see they have a lot of family," Gunjak said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Family Finding art contest and exhibit, featuring the work of Washington County middle school and high school students who were asked to create paintings of family trees for youths in foster care.

WHEN: The exhibit will continue through July 23.

Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday or by appointment.

WHERE: Washington County Arts Council's North Gallery. The WCAC's building is at 14 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown

COST: Free

MORE: To learn more about the exhibit, call 301-791-3132. To learn about the Family Finding program, call the Washington County Department of Social Services, 122 N. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown, or by phone: 301-420-2100.

Winners are

First prize - $500

Danica Gunjak, South Hagerstown High School. The winning tree will be displayed at the Washington County Department of Social Services office in downtown Hagerstown.

Second prize - $250

Nelson Rodriguez, North Hagerstown High School

Third prize - $100

Vanice Colas, North Hagerstown High School

  • 16 runners-up received gift cards to A.C. Moore.

  • All of the semifinalists are on view at the Washington County Arts Council gallery.

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