WESTFIELD, Mass., Nov. 8, 2010 -- Between the kids playing ping pong and the teens chilling by the pool tables, it could have been a scene from any Saturday in the suburbs.
But these children -- Lizzy, Javier, Pablo, Francisco, Amber among them -- were at the Westfield Boy and Girls Club as the guests of honor at an adoption party, a hugely successful method in Massachusetts of matching kids and families.
"You can read about a child you can hear about a child, but once you meet them, and you see their smile and you see how they interact that makes all the difference in the world," said Lisa Funaro, executive director of the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange, which hosts about a dozen such parties statewide each year. "It's personal contact."
Massachusetts was the first state to use adoption parties more than 30 years ago, Funaro said. Today it is MARE's number one resource in placing children and they are often visited by adoption officials from other states looking for tips on hosting their own parties.
"We had 138 children placed last year and over 32 percent of them were via adoption parties," she said. "So it really works. And if you think about it, it makes sense."
But there are rules. Children that have been legally cleared for adoption wear gold-trimmed nametags. The children who are not legal yet have a green dot on their tags.
Prospective parents are not allowed to tell the children they are interested in adoption or ask personal information such as their last names, information about their birth families or where they live.
They are encouraged, though, to get involved in the children's activities, ask what their interests are. Personal questions or inquiries about the kids' status are to be direct to their social workers, who also mill around the party.
The Westfield adoption party was Erin Beckett's fourth. The 38-year-old teacher from South Hadley, Mass., is hoping to become a mother to a boy, preferably between the age of 5 and 9.
"They're hard, but they're so important," she said of the parties. "One thing I tell my social worker all the time, is people need to know that this is possible and it's just such a great way to meet kids and it's such a great way for kids to find a family. I think everyone should do it personally."
Though Successful, Adoption Parties Raise Concerns About Children's Emotions
Beckett, who is unmarried, said she made the decision to adopt after becoming enamored with her eighth grade students and realizing she wanted to be able to help a child of her own.
Though four parties under her belt might make a pro by some standards, she admits to still getting nervous.
"Sometimes I do go up and talk to the kids, but I always wonder how they're feeling you know, knowing that everyone is watching them," she said. "So, it's hard."
"I just know it will work out. I know I'm going to be a great mom," she said. "I know that I have a lot to offer."
There are 2,300 foster children living in Massachusetts. About 600 of them are available for adoption, according to MARE. Most are boys and about half are minorities. More than 70 percent of them are older than six years old.
Despite the success stories, Funaro said she still encounters her share of naysayers who, before attending, have concerns it's "weird" or bad for the children.
"I think families and social workers who have never been to an adoption party, they wonder 'Are the kids feel like they're on display?'" she said. "And, they're going to feel like, 'Oh my goodness is someone going to pick me, am I going to leave and no one will have picked me,' and they'll be very disappointed."
"I think once you come to a party you realize this is all about having fun for the kids," she said. "And of course they know they are available for adoption. Their social workers have talked to them about it."
It's the display factor that gives some adoption experts pause.
"Adoption parties are not perfect, but they are effective," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
"They are imperfect because in an ideal world you would not want to put kids on display, not in photos, not at matching parties," he said.
Many of the kids, he said, come to the parties "hoping and praying to go home with someone eventually and go home disappointed. And that's not a great thing."
Finding Jaron: 'That's My Son'
Ruth Bodian is living proof that adoption parties can make connections where traditional adoption procedures might not. Four years ago, the Dorchester, Mass., resident was a prospective parent attending her first party just to get more information about adoption and see what some of the children were like.
Bodian already had her theoretical child in mind -- a young boy, maybe elementary school age, but no older. "I was walking around with a huge knot in my throat, trying very hard not to cry," she said. "It was all very emotional."
Then she spotted an 11-year-old boy hanging out where music was being played.
"I don't know what it was -- I was just like, 'This is it. That's my son,'" she said.
She didn't meet that boy that day, but instead set up a lunch date with his social worker. In February 2006, Jaron Purdy came to live with her. In November 2007, he was officially adopted.
"I thought the whole idea of starting with a teen or a preteen was just outrageous and wanted nothing to do with it and then I saw him and all of that didn't matter anymore," she said. "I knew he was the right match for me."
Now 15, Jaron has gone from being a troubled pre-teen to a more peaceful teenager.
"Emotionally he's grown so much. He definitely was pretty volatile when he first moved in with me. Charming, but if that anger switch went off, it was no secret," Bodian said. "He's much more peaceful. I think he's much more peaceful with himself."
In a recent poem Jaron penned, titled "Where I'm From," he seems to tell the story of his journey from a hardscrabble life to one of love.
"I am from the laughter of kids from down the street the dark cold quiet streets where all you hear is police at night … I am from the noise witch [sic] you hear at night down the street guns go pop, pop, pop all night, sirens follow after with there [sic] flashing lights, tiny stars glow at night," he wrote.
And then, "I am from the tall trees which blow in the distance I am from my blue house were I'm warm with the wild pets running along sigh this is home and that's where I want to be."
Adoption parties are on the rise nationwide, Pertman said, and even though it's not ideal it gives children who have lived with disappointment their entire lives something to hope for.
"This is at least a shot," he said.
The adoption of her son Jaron has changed Bodian's life in more ways than one. Once employed by the Boston public school system, she joined MARE in 2008 as director of family services, where she counsels other prospective parents.
"It is very scary, it is a huge leap of faith," she said. "There is so much that is possible, but families really have to be in a place they are 100 percent prepared to commit to this child and be able to go through the hard stuff with them."
Bodian -- the woman who had vowed never to adopt a teenager -- is now in the process of bringing home a 13-year-old girl. And Jaron's older brother is now living with the family too.
"It is by far the most fulfilling experience I've had," Bodian said. "The most challenging too, but the most fulfilling."