Today we’d like to begin introducing you to our State Associates. State Associations exist to promote the Project HOPEFUL vision: EDUCATING, ENCOURAGING and ENABLING families adopting children with HIV/AIDS within the individual states. Project HOPEFUL is looking for people to partner with to help us bring our educational workshops to your state. Associates will help plan events, develop relationships with local HIV/AIDS medical specialists, create social networks for local advocates and adoptive families, and more! If you would like to contact your State Associate or would like to find out how to begin a State Association in your state, please contact Deanna Jones Falchook, National Associate Director at Deanna@projecthopeful.org.

Today’s featured State: Maine
State Associate: Shannon Wheeler

PH: Hi Shannon! Thank you for taking part in our interview today. Let’s start by having you tell us how you first hear about Project HOPEFUL.

SW: The first time I heard about Project HOPEFUL was when a Facebook friend posted a news clip with Carolyn Twietmeyer’s family being featured. I was floored. I had literally no idea of the hope that exists for children living with HIV. I was among the many Americans who still thought HIV/AIDS was a certain death sentence. I sat and cried at my kitchen counter, hearing of this hope and watching this family grow and seeing the transformation of her daughter from a sick and suffering orphan to a joyful, thriving, playful daughter. It was unbelievable. I had to see this again. I had to show my husband. I had to re-post it on Facebook. And I had to get involved!

PH: How did you develop an interest in HIV adoption/advocacy?

SW: Adoption and orphan care advocacy is what lights up my heart. As I’ve learned more about what God’s Word says about His heart for the orphan, and as I continue to grow in my relationship with Jesus, I can’t help but be ignited in my spirit with the love of Christ for these little ones. Until I heard of Project HOPEFUL, I had no idea there was such a thing as HIV adoption or ways to support little ones living with HIV in other countries. Watching for several years as my husband and I have walked through failed adoption processses of healthy children, I’ve noticed that there are so many stigmas attached to adoption in general, along lines of race, age, gender… and knowing the heart of our Savior for “the least of these,” I see a real need to advocate for those children in our world who are the ones our society says are “least,” and the amount of fear, stigma and honest ignorance of the facts surrounding HIV make this issue one that cannot be ignored. There are literally too many lives at stake. I know not all families are called to adopt, and among those who are, not all will be called to adopt a child living with HIV. But as a Christian, I am compelled by the love of Christ and the ransom paid for my own adoption into the family of God to do everything I can to obey what the Bible tells me is my responsibility: to look after orphans in their distress (James 1:27). I love our Lord’s heart for these children, for adoption, for calling those things that are not as though they are, for making families according to His design and not according only to our biology, for redeeming those years that have been lost, for healing wounded places, for grace and for His faithfulness every single time to remain true to His promise to be the Defender of the fatherless, to “place the lonely in families,” and to provide for our needs as we obey His call to step out in this area of our lives.

PH: Tell us about your own adoption story.

SW: (aka our not-yet-having-adopted story) My husband and I first began a journey toward adoption in 2006. We did a homestudy and spent a year waiting on a baby, only to get a call for a placement and then see the doors be closed by the Lord. It was our first taste of how fraught with emotion the world of adoption is. We actually conceived our littlest child the next month, so we had the privilege of immediately seeing what the Lord had planned. That isn’t always how the Lord works in our lives, though. Sometimes the waiting is long and the answers don’t come quickly. That was the story with a boy we now call our heart-son who lives in Eastern Europe and has aged-out of adoption eligibility but who we consider family and look forward to traveling next month to meet in person! In addition to spending time with him at the Christian center where he is living, we are working in cooperation with a Project HOPEFUL FIG endeavor to learn more about how Project HOPEFUL can come alongside older orphans who have aged-out and yet still need the safety, support and accountability offered by loving adults in order to complete trade school and make a safe transition into adulthood. We will also be working to develop relationships with directors of any orphanages in the area of the country we will be in who may not be in contact with Project HOPEFUL yet in order to help advocate for the children living with HIV in those facilities. Please pray for us, that the Lord will open doors of opportunity and guide our steps while we are overseas, and that He will show Himself strong on behalf of these children, as He promises in His Word.

PH: What are your favorite aspects of Project HOPEFUL’s mission?

SW: I love that Project HOPEFUL has many facets. I love the education piece, because I know that is something I have benefited from greatly and still have so much to learn. I think knowledge and education are tremendously powerful tools in tearing down walls of fear. As Americans, living in a country with access to wonderful medicine, wonderful education, and free access to God’s Word, we really have no excuse not to be educated about HIV/AIDS, and yet I am humbled and convicted that this is something up until recently I have made no effort to learn more about. I literally stopped pursuing knowledge of HIV/AIDS in the 80’s, so I really love the Truth Pandemic video, because I was SO stuck in the 80’s!

PH: What about working with Project HOPEFUL are you the most passionate about?

SW: I’m very passionate about the FIG project I’m currently honored to be working on in Eastern Europe. In August, my husband and I will be traveling to Ukraine, and we’ll be staying for a week at a wonderful Christian children’s center, where we have spent the past 20 months loving a boy who lives there as a child of our hearts, and we can’t wait to meet him and the staff of wonderful people who work there. In addition to this, we’re working on behalf of Project HOPEFUL to examine, with the input of those living in Ukraine, working with orphans, exactly how best Project HOPEFUL can come alongside those orphans who are aging-out of orphanages and out of eligibility for adoption, yet who desperately need a support system of loving, Christian adults to provide them with help as they go to trade school and transition to adulthood. I’m very passionate about this project, specifically because my family is incredibly blessed to see the powerfully positive impact such programs have on children, like our “heart son.” So we’re working with FIG to research, network and strategize about how Project HOPEFUL can be a part of offering this type of support to older children. The statistics about what happens to children who age out are devastating, and this is a crisis that needs attention and action, and I love the proactive stance Project HOPEFUL takes in being willing to step into the places of great need and start making prayerful steps toward addressing those needs. Please be praying for us as we are gearing up for this trip!

Another thing I really love about Project HOPEFUL is the network of support offered to adoptive families on an ongoing basis. There is a lot of support needed for any family after adoption, and especially if a family is not only facing the addition of a new child but also needing to learn about healthcare for a child with HIV, and there is a lot of emotional support needed as families navigate the waters of disclosure and responses from community members and even churches and family members who may not have all the information needed about HIV and may be operating out of fear. We need to gather around families with support, prayer, encouragement and love, and I really appreciate the ongoing sense of support and community Project HOPEFUL creates through the State Associations.

PH: What do you want your fellow Mainers to know about HIV adoption?

SW: Although not all families are called to adopt a child living with HIV, we all are part of communities where there are people who are living with HIV, and even in my small-town Maine community there are families I have not met but have heard of who are parenting adopted children living with HIV, and I want to be part of a support network that operates out of love and knowledge and compassion, offering friendship and a sense of community to these families. I think much of Maine is very insulated and believes that there are a lot of issues – I believe HIV is probably one of them – that don’t impact us “here,” when in fact that isn’t the case. I love my state and my fellow Mainers, and I want to facilitate education that can help dispel fears and stigmas that would prevent any family or any child from feeling they carry a stigma or any shame. I want my fellow states-people to know that there are real children and real families living in our communities who are living with HIV and also living with HOPE. I am amazed at what I’m learning about the treatment of HIV and the hope and health and long life that is possible due to what is available medically for children living with HIV.

PH: Do you have any events coming up in Maine?

SW: The Maine Association is still in its starting stage, so there are not yet State events to announce, but I would love to keep you all up to date on the FIG project in Ukraine as it’s unfolding! I would love to have any families or individuals feel welcome to contact me at hopefulmaine@gmail.com if they are interested in getting in touch about the Maine Association.

PH: Thank you so much, Shannon! We’ve enjoyed getting to know you better and look forward to seeing the State Association in Maine grow in the years to come.