Katie (Connell) Heaps ’06, ’08 M.Ed. has always loved working with children—she has been a teacher in the U.S. and Chile, and a community health volunteer in Uganda. And she saw similar problems in each of those seemingly disparate locations: children in need of stable homes and support.
“Even parents who want to love and care for their children are not always able to, sometimes due to terrible circumstances or parents passing away because of inadequate medical care,” she says. “When you are in a developing country, it can be very obvious—I saw orphans on the street in Uganda. But it exists here in the United States, too. You see situations where kids and families struggle. When something happens to parents, children need somewhere to go.”
Seeing this firsthand made her want to work in children’s advocacy, and has led to a career helping facilitate adoptions for children both in the U.S. and internationally, as director of development at a nonprofit called Gift of Adoption.
“If you can address a need in a child, you’re solving so many potential problems down the road,” Heaps says of her desire to help children find stable homes. “If a child has a good upbringing and they are well-educated and loved, they are much more likely to turn out to be productive, loving human beings themselves.”
Gift of Adoption helps children like a girl from Bulgaria who was adopted just two weeks before she aged out of the orphanage where she lived. Many international orphanages don’t allow children in their teens, and her next birthday would have left her out on her own, without any caregivers, says Heaps.
The nonprofit provided a grant to the girl’s family to help with the costs of the adoption process, which can reach $38,000 for domestic adoptions and $42,000 for international adoptions.
Since the girl’s adoption, Heaps says, “She has learned English and was able to tell us herself about the impact of her adoption: She said it literally saved her life. Now she is an American citizen, goes to school, takes dance classes.”
Heaps says her favorite part of her job is sharing stories like these with Gift of Adoption donors, and showing how their support has dramatically altered not only the lives of children, but also the families they join.
Since its founding in 1996, the organization, which has chapters in 23 states, has helped fund adoptions for more than 2,800 children by providing $8.3 million in adoption assistance grants. This year alone, it will help 400 children find homes and “unite with their families,” as Heaps puts it.
“It feels monumental. Now, 400 children will have warm beds and goodnight stories, things that seem simple but are so critical and life-changing,” she says. “Our goal is 500 kids per year in the future. We never want the reason a child doesn’t come home to be the high cost of adoptions.”
Grants from Gift of Adoption help families with expenses at the end of the adoption process, when they are already matched with a child through an adoption agency.
“We prioritize our grants based on the vulnerability of the child: adoptions that keep siblings together, children with critical medical needs, or children who are older and aging out of an international orphanage—children that don’t have as many opportunities to be adopted,” Heaps says. “We also look at a family’s finances. They have to demonstrate a need, as well as put effort into raising funds for the adoption.”
Heaps manages annual giving and donor stewardship for Gift of Adoption, and is also in charge of the organization’s annual fundraising gala—all efforts that bring in funding for these life-changing adoption grants.
She also worked as director of development at the LIFT (Lifting India’s Future Today) Foundation, after earning a master’s in education degree through Notre Dame’s ACE teaching program and spending a year and a half teaching in Chile through an ACE program.
“Notre Dame has a special focus on expanding your horizons, and that certainly happened for me, both physically and mentally, while I was there. Seeing not only what problems exist, but also that individuals have the capacity to affect change—Notre Dame instilled that in me,” Heaps says. “And that is part of what I tell our donors. Even though not everyone is going to be able to adopt a child from another country or with critical medical needs, their support can be part of that story and help these kids come home.”