Tucked into the back corner of a consignment store on South Lewis is a testimonial to motherhood. This is where Gay Larson runs the Oklahoma Heart Gallery, where portraits of adopted children brighten the walls.
One of those children is 9-year-old Milena Blish. She is pictured with her adoptive family from central Oklahoma, her dad, Clayton, her baby brother, Hudson, and her mother, Molly.
Molly and Milena look particularly radiant.
“Every time you see a child find a family, it’s worthwhile,” says Larson, whose Gallery is a nonprofit initiative whereby children available for adoption are photographed professionally and then promoted in galleries both online and via mobile displays. “You feel so happy for the kids, and their mothers, too, this time of year.”
“I used to be sad on Mother’s Day because I never had anyone to celebrate,” Molly says. “Now I’m so happy for what I’m able to give my children.”
Molly has a story to tell about her own childhood. She can tell you about longing. Now that she has given birth to Hudson and adopted Milena in 2016, she can tell you about fulfillment.
Gay Larson has a story, having adopted two children of her own 20 years ago, and having blended that passion with another to launch the Gallery.
But let’s start with Milena, two years older than the little girl in the portrait in Larson’s office, and two years happier.
“What my mom and I do together is watch movies and eat popcorn, eat ice cream, a lot of junk food,” Milena says. “We looove basketball. She’s a really good basketball player. She played it when she was young. She helps me practice.”
Milena explains how she looks like her mom, and wants to please her mom by working more and talking less in fifth grade. She admits to feeling “special” that she was adopted. She is aware her mom was not as fortunate as a foster child.
“She aged out of the system whenever she was little,” Milena explains.
Indeed, you feel for the mothers this time of year.
“I didn’t have my mom growing up,” Molly Blish says. “I was taken from her when I was 3 and I haven’t seen her since. My dad married my stepmom when I was about 13. She wasn’t the greatest. And a year later I was taken away from them. She left him and kind of abandoned us. She was short-term the mother I never had, but it wasn’t the greatest situation, you know?
“The family I moved in with whenever I was in foster care at 14, they were great, they just never adopted me because when the conversation came up I was already almost 18.
“Having a mother was something I always longed for.”
Being a mother as well. Being an adoptive mother.
Less than a year after she gave birth to Hudson, Molly started an adoption process that led her to Milena. The family met the little girl in the Tulsa area in October of 2016 — Milena lived in the area with her foster mom at the time — and the connection was immediate.
Milena spent a weekend with the Blishes the following December.
“She did her six months with us,” Molly says, “and on September 11, 2017, we adopted her.”
“Me and her, we still kind of have our struggles just because of the things she’s going through and I’m still trying to heal from my past,” Molly continues. “But it’s such a good life. We like to go out and eat and go to the movies. We do a lot of outdoor stuff, going to parks. We spend a lot of time at church. We go over to her friends and hang out a lot, just connecting to a lot of foster families. We do one-on-one time, me and her and her and her dad. Because that’s really important for kids from foster care. …
“I’ve always wanted to be a mom. Since I was very, very young.”
Molly is still young. She’s 26, so she has so much time to look forward to with Milena and Hudson. She has so much time to make up for anything she feels she lost as a child.
Now, like Gay Larson, she can allow days like this to bathe her in warmth and promise.
Larson was raising three teen sons about 20 years ago when she and her husband adopted a 13-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl.
“The year of insanity,” she laughs now.
Oh, but the rewards.
Larson was about five years into her extended family when she attended a photography workshop. She always had an interest in camerawork and was looking to enhance it, and at the workshop she heard about something called the Heart Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
“It was like lightning struck,” Larson says. “I just knew. It was something big. I’ve gotta do something with this.”
She did. For several years she poured her free time into an Oklahoma version of the Heart Gallery. She enlisted volunteers to photograph kids at particular risk, due to age or disability or the fact they were siblings who preferred not to separate, and partnered with the Department of Human Services to promote the children’s adoption.
In 2016 Larson retired from her main job as an account executive at KTUL-TV, entered into a memorandum of understanding with DHS and devoted herself fulltime to the Gallery. Bobby, the 12-year-old she had adopted, spoke at the Gallery’s “grand opening.”
“He said that he went from group home to foster home and he began to feel like he could never be loved,” Larson says “He saw himself as either being in prison, drug addicted or dead. He said the only thing that changed him was when we adopted him. He said we changed his life.”
There are stories like Bobby’s everywhere you look in Larson’s office. She points to the photos on the walls, flips through more on a shelf and eventually she and a guest reach the Blish family.
“Look at ‘em,” she says. “Just gorgeous. So happy … I do think the families, the mothers, that adopt these children need to be honored.”