NEW ORLEANS — Just like other parents, Larry and Donna Gainey of Gonzales watched their 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, toddle around the park, a purple-and-gold balloon hat wrapped around her pigtails.
Just like other big brothers, 11-year-old Andrew indulged his little sister when she wanted to wander and chased after her when she went a little too far.
And just like other sisters, Sarah insisted that the clown/balloon man make one “for her brother.”
But unlike most other families, the Gainey family was brought together through the Volunteers of America’s adoption program. Both Andrew and Sarah were adopted at birth.
And Saturday morning, they joined about a dozen other such families the organization has helped create in an annual celebration to commemorate National Adoption Awareness month.
It was the 15th such gathering held at City Park’s Carousel Garden for families who adopted through the 70-year-old program. Every year, families from throughout the area gather to celebrate their children and to join other families, old and new, who have been helped by the VOA.
“It’s a way to not only celebrate National Adoption Month, but to bring some of our families and little ones together and celebrate the whole purpose of adoption, which is to bring families together, ” said Lori Arceneaux North, the program manager.
Arceneaux said the program helps arrange about 12 to 15 adoptions per year and has united thousands of families over its 70 years in existence. The VOA program is a licensed adoption agency and is considered one of the pioneers in open adoption, in which adoptive families maintain varying levels of contact with their children’s biological families.
The program also works with Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, part of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which partners with state agencies to help find adoptive parents for children in foster care.
The Gaineys adopted Andrew when he was just a few weeks old. They have come to the event every year since Sarah joined the family three years ago — after Andrew asked his parents for a sibling.
“We got her when she was two weeks old,” Larry Gainey said. “It was a total surprise for us because, usually, you get about six months to plan it out when you’re going to get a child. With Sarah, we got about four weeks. Actually, we had two weeks’ notice and we got her in the fourth week. It was all of a sudden.”
Jennifer and Neil Arceneaux also adopted both of their children through the VOA. On Saturday, Neil Arceneaux was trying to handle son Ben, 4, while Jennifer Arceneaux held on to new addition, Zoey, 5 months, who was sporting a large pink flower in her hair.
“We’ve been coming for the last four years,” Jennifer Arceneaux said. “It’s really nice to see all the other families that have adopted and that have grown.”
Nickelis Wallace, 3, didn’t have much to say about Saturday’s event.
He was pretty excited about the train chugging nearby, but he was too busy deciding between the doughnuts and the fresh fruit his mother, Shavondra, offered him as he sat perched on the lap of his great-grandmother, Bobetta Dean, as grandmother June Bigard and dad David Wallace looked on. The New Orleans family usually brings more people to the event, but this year some had other things to do.
“To me, it’s a celebration of family and letting other people know that if you can’t have a child naturally, then the next best thing is to adopt,” Shavondra Wallace said.
“I have a lot of cousins that are adopted and we never knew until we got older. And when we found out it was like, ‘OK.’
“We just think Nickelis is ours,” Bigard said. “He’s a part of us. And he’s brought so much joy and so much fun to our lives. We couldn’t imagine not having him.”