Putting Pen To Paper

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This summer I have been given the opportunity to write about the wonderful people who are working alongside me to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America – ordinary citizens of all ages and backgrounds with great stories to tell. My goal: to honor friends, family and colleagues who are actively shaping the REFCA Movement and leading our nation forward.

Last night as I was sitting at my desk writing, I received a phone call from a new foster parent – a woman I met when I launched our first Treehouse Community. She is a passionate child advocate with a truly generous heart.

Her experience as a foster parent has been difficult. She doesn’t feel respected by the social workers assigned to her children. One child did not receive the mental health services he required nor did she receive the ongoing support she needed to meet his emerging needs. Frustrated, she picked up the phone and called the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. The Commissioner responded with grace and wisdom. She drove out to this woman’s home and listened to her speak about the experience.

I encouraged her to continue communicating her thoughts and feelings to Department staff, to hang in there, and to be the advocate our children placed in foster care need her to be: educated, informed, and collaborative.

Standing on the front lines of our child welfare system and caring for our most vulnerable children is a truly humbling experience. It is also important, rewarding, enlightening, challenging, and necessary. Foster parents are given the task of keeping our eyes on the prize – our most vulnerable children and youth. It’s a critical role that the child welfare system and the kids need us to fill. They need the best and the brightest. It’s their lives we’re protecting and their futures we’re responsible for.

If I hadn’t become a foster parent, I would not have become a full time child advocate,
and spent the past 12 years investing in foster care innovation. I am profoundly grateful for the experience. It was a dynamic catalyst that has led to widespread collaborative social change. Here is the Salient Take Away from my experience:

Our child welfare system is in trouble. It is overwhelmed and under resourced and it has been for a long time …. We ask it to do the impossible. We say, “Here. You take care of our most vulnerable and at risk children. We, the taxpayers, will give you a little funding to do the job. Then we’ll leave you alone to do the work and only pay attention if something goes wrong. And, if something goes wrong … Well, then we’ll put your head on the chopping block.”

This is the reason I sold my business. We have set our child welfare system up to fail. This paradigm is not working. For children, families, social workers, schools, government or
society. Every year nearly 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care: the next generation of poor and homeless Americans. They are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen parenting, and lives of poverty.

Here in Massachusetts concerned citizens are Re-Envisioning Foster Care. We are actively leveraging people, dollar, and idea resources to better serve children and youth placed
in our child welfare system. I can’t wait to share our success stories with you. I
guarantee you will be inspired to join the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement!

Putting Children First

Save-the-date

Set in a small town in western Massachusetts, the significance of the Treehouse Community may not be evident from it’s physical presence alone, but it’s positive impact is felt in the region and beyond. Thanks to a collaborative partnership among three visionary organizations – the Treehouse Foundation, Beacon Communities LLC, and Berkshire Children & Families – and 100+ Treehouse community members ranging in age from 1 – 95, this exciting award winning multigenerational neighborhood has been a catalyst for widespread
social change.

Since opening the Treehouse Community with it’s partners in 2006, the Treehouse Foundation has been busy developing a vibrant Center of Foster Care & Adoption Excellence in the region of Massachusetts where the largest number of children experiencing foster care reside. Engaging a collaborative social change approach, this entrepreneurial 12 year old non-profit has inspired action, demonstrated the power of partnership, and leveraged deep investment in foster care innovation. Treehouse is helping dissolve the foster care pipeline to our next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

To accomplish it’s vision Treehouse invites people of all ages and backgrounds to become resources to children and youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care. It is diligently building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options with regional partners who share the vision.

They understand that most people think there are only two ways to support a child placed in our child welfare system. They are eager to join Treehouse
in developing an array of choices so all kids can live connected, healthy
and fulfilling lives.

The Treehouse Foundation wholeheartedly believes in it’s mission and vision. That’s why it launched The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement (REFCA) in 2010 and is busy planning the Fifth Annual REFCA Conference with
it’s REFCA colleagues (May 30th @ Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, MA.).

Next week REFCA stakeholders will come together for their Winter Working Group Gathering. Throughout the morning folks will share the latest information
about REFCA Working Group inspired programs like A Home Within, HEROES Youth Leadership Project, Project Thrive! Zero To Five, and the Bridge Road Youth Housing/Job Skills Program. Mary LeBeau, a seasoned child welfare
professional who works on behalf of children and youth across the nation,
will facilitate the event. Her goal: Help the group weave permanency into
every aspect of their REFCA work and remember the permanency mantra:
Stay Home. Go Home. Find Home.

We look forward to our upcoming REFCA events: the Winter Working Group Gathering & the Fifth Annual REFCA Conference. It is always such a
pleasure to come together with people who are compassionate, thoughtful
and wise; folks who are eager to engage in collaborative social change
where children come first.

Celebrating Our Accomplishments

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At Treehouse we know that communities aren’t just built with bricks and mortar. Communities are people. Our neighbors, friends, and family. And this year, as we celebrate seven years of intergenerational living on Treehouse Circle, we are looking back on all our accomplishments and forward to what the future may bring.

The Treehouse Community in Easthampton opened in 2006. As soon as the celebration ended, Treehouse Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead, and I began the process of bringing Treehouse community members of all ages together in exciting and meaningful ways. It was a wonderful moment in our Treehouse history.

We immediately began welcoming children, families and elders to live in their new homes on Treehouse Circle. The vision of the Treehouse Community – children being moved out of foster care into permanent, loving families who live in a neighborhood where people of all ages invest in their health, well-being and futures – was palpable. You could feel the goodness in the air.

Seven years later you can still feel that goodness on Treehouse Circle. It shows up as people come together to break bread, learn new skills, give one another a ride to the doctor, pick up a neighbor’s child from school, take an art class together, celebrate holidays, chat while their children play on the playground, and gather to raise their voices in song. The way life should be. One generation meeting the needs of another.

Over the past 87 months, the Treehouse community members have demonstrated the value of multigenerational living and invited many others to stand under the banner of Shared Responsibility.

The award winning Treehouse Foundation invests in lives and is also a catalyst for the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement. We show people what it takes to help children and youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care flourish and thrive. We support adoptive, birth, foster, guardianship, and kinship parents in exciting new ways. We highlight the value of vital aging in a country where 1 out of every 3 children born today will live to be 100. We inspire others to build intergenerational communities in their states.

Every day I get down on my knees and give thanks for all of the visionaries who have been on the Treehouse Journey. Together we have put the needs of our most vulnerable children on the table and leveraged the people, dollar and idea resources needed to create a Hub of Foster Care Innovation.

In the process we have created a Culture of Possibility with fabulous partners throughout New England and across the nation; a culture with partnership as it’s core value.

All of this collaborative social change was started seven years ago at the Treehouse Community and is made possible by ordinary citizens: Treehouse board members, business leaders, non-profit partners, school groups, faith based organizations, civic groups, professionals, philanthropists, and the 100+ Treehouse Pioneers who chose to move to Treehouse Circle.

Without these dedicated individuals and their ongoing investment of time, treasure and talent, the foster care landscape would not be as vibrant as it is today.

Thanks to the Treehouse Foundation’s bold vision, people of all ages and backgrounds are investing in foster care innovation and stepping up to the plate in exciting new ways.

Thank you for supporting the Treehouse Foundation.
Here’s to the well-being of all our nation’s children!

To Repair The World

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Dr. Paul Farmer is a visionary and social activist who believes that all humans deserve to live a life free from poverty, premature death, and unnecessary suffering.

Dr. Farmer is the co-founder of Partners In Health and Chair of the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is considered to be one of the most passionate and influential voices for global health equity. His service to the poor in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda and Russia provides us with stellar examples of collaborative social change.

Dr. Farmer’s uplifting vision – full of creativity, passion, team work and determination – provides a concrete action plan for how we can make the world a safer, more humane, and equitable place.

In his book, To Repair The World, Dr. Farmer encourages each of us to strive in some way to move the world toward equity, peace, and prosperity. Given the groundbreaking work he has engaged in over the past thirty years, reading it is a pleasure. My favorite chapter is titled “Countering Failures of Imagination”. In it Dr. Farmer describes his first visit to Haiti in the early 1980s before beginning his medical training. His job, in a hot overcrowded medical clinic, was to take vital signs and give moral support to a harried Haitian doctor.

As the two young men developed a friendship, Paul Farmer had an Aha Moment: Working in the shabby facility lowered the Haitian doctor’s expectations about what was possible when it came to providing health care to people living in poverty. The assumption – that the only health care possible in rural Haiti was poor health care – was a Failure of Imagination.

Dr. Farmer goes on to say “that the great majority of global health experts and others who seek to attack poverty are hostages to similar failures of imagination. The result: Every day the clinic offered vivid reminders of the toll exacted by a lack of imagination. It wasn’t a failure to work long hours .. but rather a failure to imagine an alternative.. Most of my Haitian colleagues were unconvinced that excellence was possible.”

Dr. Farmer’s Aha Moment led to the Re-Envisioning of Health Care in Haiti and to the establishment of Partners in Health – an organization that is dedicated to raising the standard of health care for poor people around the world.

I had a similar Aha Moment about our nation’s child welfare system in 1999. After becoming a foster parent and learning that nearly 25,000 young people “age out’ of foster care without family and/or community and become the next generation of poor and homeless people in America. After talking with seasoned child welfare professionals who told me that the “aging out crisis” had been going on for their entire 30 year careers. After asking foster care experts what was the best way forward and hearing, “The system is broken. We can throw some programs and dollars at the “aging out crisis” but really other than that there is nothing that can be done to turn this ship around.” Failures of Imagination..

Dr. Paul Farmer established Partners in Health to counteract Failures of Imagination in Haiti. I established the Treehouse Foundation to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. Following in Dr. Farmer’s footsteps, we have launched The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement and are collaborating with visionary Americans of all ages and backgrounds to create coast to coast collaborations designed to be a catalyst for widespread investment in foster care innovation.

Partners In Health is a force for justice and social change. It demonstrates quite clearly how important it is to engage in the movement to make the world safer, equitable and more humane. The Treehouse Foundation is standing under the banner of Shared Responsibility with Dr. Farmer and his colleagues. We are applying the lessons they have learned to the REFCA Movement. We are partnering with others to translate goodwill and resources into robust responses and sustainable solutions that result in all children having the opportunity to live healthy, connected and fulfilling lives.

Is That Really Possible?

refca

It’s happens all the time… I’ll be at a stop light and someone will drive up next to me, roll down their window and say, “Re-Envisioning Foster Care. Is that really possible?”

I live in the Greater Boston Area, work in western Massachusetts, and take my daughter to ride in a barn down by the Cape. As I crisscross the state with two magnets on the back of my car that say “I’m Re -Envisioning Foster Care!” lots of people are introduced to this amazing concept.

Over the past few years thousands of people
have seen them. Sometimes I’ll be at a stop light.
When I look in my rear view mirror I notice people
pointing to them and then entering into a discussion.

I’d love to inspire many more REFCA conversations!
Perhaps when someone donates a fun car wrapped in bright colors and cool graphics that share the message in a much more dynamic way… I’m waiting for Ernie Boch or some other generous car dealer to contact me and offer up a free lease! I can see the number of Re-Envisioning Foster Care conversations rising as I type those words ..

Occasionally, I’ll be in a parking lot putting my groceries away and someone will walk up and talk to me. A couple of weeks ago, I was loading shelving into my car at Home Depot. A family approached me and said, “What does Re-Envisioning Foster Care mean? What are you doing?” I can’t tell you how much fun it is to dive right in and share the details of the past decade! People always walk away smiling. Pondering the possibilities.

Recently a Boston police officer, who was standing nearby when I parked my car at Northeastern University, sauntered over to my window and asked, “Where will you put the kids if they are not in foster care?”

We had a great discussion about the fact that most Americans think there are only two ways to support a child placed in foster care: become a foster parent or adopt a child. He understood that this is too much to ask of most people and that the result is millions of Americans turn and walk away from the very children in their neighborhoods who need them the most. He was thrilled when I told him we are building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so that people of all ages and backgrounds will have many more opportunities to become resources to kids.

I enjoy these spontaneous conversations with folks who typically are not thinking outside of the foster care box. I love the expressions on their faces when they hear about the investments in foster care innovation that the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections, Birdsong Farm and others are making to improve the lives of our children and youth who have placed in foster care. They love hearing about Mel Lambert’s Pony Pals and how mini horses and mini donkeys are supporting the health and well-being of kids in Massachusetts.

People are genuinely happy to hear that the Treehouse Foundation and all of it’s partners are working together to dissolve the foster care pipeline to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans. They want the “aging out crisis” to end.

They are delighted to hear that Treehouse and it’s partners are actively engaged in creating Project Thrive! – a new initiative designed to support the needs of infants, toddlers & pre-schoolers in foster care. They are excited to learn about HEROES – our youth leadership project designed to empower young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care.

They love hearing about all of the goodness that is woven into Life on Treehouse Circle – for the 100+ children, families and elders who live in the beautiful multigenerational Treehouse Community. “I love that idea! People my age can help? Can you build a Treehouse Community in this area?” people remark. “Loving family and caring neighbors. Now that’s exactly what the children need,” say others.

And everyone feels good about Camp To Belong MA. “I can’t imagine not being connected to my brothers and sisters,” one college student said the other day. It felt so good to be able to give him the link to the Sibling Connections website.

People seem so relieved to hear that solutions are being created to some of child welfare’s most intractable problems – challenges that our overwhelmed and under resourced public foster care system needs our on-going resources and support to solve.

I’m grateful that those two blue REFCA magnets spark such interesting conversations. Thanks to everyone who pulls up next to me and asks, “Is that really possible?” I am so relieved that you don’t want to tell me that my brake light is out or that I forgot to put my gas cap back on..

I would much rather talk about Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America. It’s my favorite topic!

Thank You Dr. King!

mlk

I was a 12 year old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.

On August 28, 1963, as I turned on our TV, approximately 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. The rest of us, numbering in the millions, listened on the radio and watched on television.

As a child I visited my grandmother and her husband in Oakland, California on Sundays after church. As an 8th grader, I was no stranger to outstanding preachers and beautiful gospel music. But Dr. King’s words, still so moving and relevant fifty years later, did something no other preacher had ever done before.. He not only spoke truth to power. He lifted us up – all races, genders and creeds – to the mountain top to see what we are collectively called to do in our life time. Dr. King gave the nation and it’s citizens a spiritual and moral Call to Action – one that continues to guide me to this very day.

Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech is considered to be one of the great pieces of oratory of the 20th Century. Perhaps the greatest. I remember hearing it like it was yesterday. As Dr. King spoke, I was deeply moved by his intelligence, wisdom and courage, awed by the truth and beauty in his words, and transfixed by the speech’s powerful cadence.

He was an eloquent speaker, peaceful visionary, inspirational leader, gifted storyteller and passionate preacher/teacher all rolled into one. I appreciated the way he first he painted a realistic picture of the injustices black Americans faced and the role the government played in preventing all it’s citizens from attaining freedom and equality. He reminded us that equality, opportunity and freedom are American ideals, belonging to no singular demographic.

Then he moved on to help us visualize a better America. He did it simply but with such imagery, passion and skill. He shared his dream…

When he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”, I could actually see it. When he went on to say, “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York…” the picture was crystal clear. I was watching Dr. King on a black and white TV but the images he was painting with his heartfelt words came through in living color.

I am forever grateful to Dr. King. He was the greatest human rights activist of our time. His peaceful actions and powerful leadership inspired millions of us to dream.

My dream is to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, I find myself wanting to write an awe inspiring speech that acts as a catalyst and rouses all Americans to actively support our nation’s half million children in foster care. So far, I only have a rough draft:

I have a dream. That all our children in America are…

* Cherished and honored from the moment they are born.
* Rooted in healthy families and caring communities that invest in their health and well-being.
* Given equal rights and equal protection under the law as well as equal consideration in our communities.

I have a dream … That all children placed in our public foster care system will one day reside in a nation where they are given every opportunity to live healthy and productive lives.

I have a dream … That all Americans will stand together under the Banner of Shared Responsibility to reduce the number of youth who are “aging out” of our public foster care system from 25,000 annually to zero.

I have a dream … That Americans of all ages and backgrounds will dismantle the foster care pipeline that leads to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

I have a dream … That the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement will become a stellar social justice collective, like the one that Dr. King created for the Civil Rights Movement.

Thank you Dr. King. Your vision will always guide me.

It’s for sale…

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My amazing toy store in Brookline.

The delightful “classroom” where I spent almost twenty years, raising my two oldest children and serving children and families in the Greater Boston Area. The place where I learned so many important life lessons and where I had the opportunity to interact daily with a fabulous group of people.

I stopped by the store today after a meeting at Matt Murphy’s and found myself walking around the store remembering.. Customers, colleagues, beautiful playthings, colorful window displays. So many fond memories. As the gifts I purchased were being wrapped, the young woman at the cash register told me that the store was for sale. For one brief moment I wondered if I should buy it back …

On May 11, 1999, I was at No Kidding! when a lovely social worker called to ask if my husband and I would open our home to two little sisters who had been placed in foster care. Inspired by the girls, their siblings and their peers whose lives have been impacted by foster care, I chose to sell No Kidding! and work to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. It is the best decision I have ever made.

My two previous careers in education and business provided me with the vision, tenacity and skill sets required to become a dedicated social entrepreneur and advocate for half million children and youth in our child welfare system.

In 2001 I began the journey. I was on a mission. First step: To create a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options for Americans of all ages – an array of exciting opportunities that would invite citizens from coast to coast to become everyday resources for our most vulnerable children who are stuck in the foster care pipeline, destined to become the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

Since becoming a foster parent, I had learned that most Americans think there are only two ways they can support a child placed in foster care: Become a foster parent or adopt a child from our child welfare system. This is too much to ask of most people. The result: millions of Americans turn and walk away from the very children in their communities who need them the most. Most of us mistakenly believe that the American taxpayers’ role is simply to maintain our nation’s child welfare system. We forget that children placed in foster care need us to help them live engaged, healthy and productive lives.

Since 2001, I have been a student of Collaborative Social Change, Child Welfare, Social Work, Psychology, Public Policy & Non-Profit Management. I look forward to the next decade and the lessons it will bring.

I love being a social entrepreneur. Partnering with other dedicated visionaries makes my heart sing! I am deeply grateful to the scores of people who have made this collaborative process such a rich experience – my supportive family, trustworthy friends, and esteemed colleagues. I have a profound appreciation for generous philanthropy; how it helps create a culture of possibility.

The young woman in the toy store handed me the beautifully wrapped presents. I thanked her
and headed toward the door. Walking out onto Harvard Street, I wished the store well. As much as I loved No Kidding! it was part of my past, not my present or future. My job today: Continue inspiring a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America!