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

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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?

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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!

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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!

Onward & Upward!

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Looking at the world through the eyes of America’s marginalized children can be heartbreaking. Engaging in conversation with youngsters who have been removed from their homes and placed in our public foster care system is an eye opening experience. Sometimes listening to foster care alumni speak about their life experiences can leave one feeling stunned. It can also be a catalyst. A Call To Action.

I was one of those people who felt stunned by the reality of our child welfare system. After becoming a foster parent 14 years ago, I met hundreds of children and youth in foster care. I had the opportunity to speak with young adults who had “aged out” of our child welfare system. They became important teachers, guiding me forward to Re-Envision Foster Care in America. Their reality spurred me into action.

First, they helped me understand that the overwhelmed and under resourced child welfare system that we, as a citizenry, have created is not working. They spoke to me about feeling different, less than, unworthy, and hopeless. They articulated why our hands-off approach – giving them over to a state agency to raise and only paying attention when something goes wrong – has created a foster care pipeline that leads directly to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans: 25,000 young people “aging out” of a system annually with no family and no place to call home. Most do not have high school diplomas and are at risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, teen parenting and lives of poverty.

In 2013 there are half million children and youth in foster care. They want responsible adults across the country to do the right thing. They want us to make sure they have access to the opportunities and resources they need to lead healthy and productive lives like their peers who haven’t been placed in foster care:

* Excellent educations in schools where administrators and teachers truly understand the impact of early childhood trauma and PTSD.
* Engaged community members who invest in their safety, health and well-being consistently throughout their childhood.
* Dedicated mentors who help them succeed in all areas of their lives.
* Stellar role models who help them re-imagine their life trajectories.
* Exceptional mental health services that help them heal from challenging beginnings.
* Compassionate and efficient child welfare professionals who help them reach their full potential.
* Progressive non-profit leaders who lead the way for widespread improvements in our foster care system.
* Visionary philanthropists who invest in foster care innovation.
* Outstanding legislators who create new public policies that ensure that all children in America have access to the resources required to develop into healthy and productive citizens.

The life experiences, courage, resilience, sincerity and poetic storytelling of our nation’s youth in foster care fuel the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Movement. They inspire our national REFCA Roadmap. These articulate young people are eager to transform today’s reality – an America where most people think the only way to support a child placed in foster care is to become a foster or adoptive parent – to a fully engaged America where people around them have a broad spectrum of options they can choose from.

It is time to honor our children and youth placed in foster care. Our nation’s most vulnerable children need us to to come together from coast to coast and create a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options; a broad array of choices that offer Americans of all ages and backgrounds exciting new ways to become everyday resources to youngsters who may physically reside in our communities but who feel that they live under a different sky.

Imagine being interested in helping a child in foster care and being able to access an actual menu that would provide you with a dozen programs in your neighborhood that you could plug into – programs that invite you to spend a morning working in a garden, an afternoon reading stories or an evening in a cooking class with a child placed in foster care. You could host a birthday party, take someone to the movies or lead a winter coat drive. Imagine the possibilities! Currently I am teaching someone to drive and helping two young people launch a business venture. One friend underwrites summer camperships. Another runs our Camp To Belong MA horse program with her daughter, sister and friends. One lovely philanthropist donated money for our HEROES Youth Leadership Project.

To do this on a national scale we need to develop a Culture of Possibility. The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus for American readers defines culture as the “customs, civilization and achievements of a particular time or people regarded collectively.” The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Culture of Possibility is a national community that simultaneously exists and evolves to fulfill its promise to our children placed in foster care. It is a creative human endeavor that calls for a “gleam in the eye” of its leaders, the courage to eschew limitations, wise investment of resources, and a shared leap of faith into an uncharted future.

Let’s tell our children in foster care that we are actively re-thinking, re-defining and re-imagining child welfare. Let’s show them that we are joining together to make sure that when youngsters are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, we will honor our promise: to keep them safe, provide them with a loving and supportive life-long family if they are not able to return to their parents, make sure that they are always connected to their siblings, surround them with compassion and understanding, and give them all of the resources they need to become healthy, productive adults. In short, that we will give them every opportunity to live an engaged, connected and fulfilling life.

Onward and upward!

A Life Well Lived

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It is said that there are only two stories – a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care are living both stories at the same time.

Take 5 year old Ali. Last week she was living at home with her mother who suffers from poor mental health. A call was made to the Department of Children and Families by a teacher citing neglect. A visit to the home was made. The next day Ali was picked up at school by a social worker and taken to a foster home.

Being removed from one’s family and placed in foster care is traumatic. This experience, even when a child is being removed from an unsafe situation, can bring grief, shock, stigma, loss and a future filled with invisibility, shame and hopelessness.

Most children aren’t doing anything special when their lives break apart – one moment they are with their family or with their peers at school, the next they are not. This is a life altering experience. Some children have the resilience to cope with the unpredictability, loss and change inherent in our chiild welfare system. Others find it completely overwhelming.

Ali is a child who found the experience completely overwhelming. She is very close to her mom. Losing her was simply too much to bear. She needed more than a foster home.She required hospitalization and round the clock support. Hopefully, she will feel better soon and be placed with a caring trauma informed family that lives in a community that understands her grief and will help her heal – people who surround her with all of the kindness and compassion she needs.

We make a promise to children when we remove them from their homes: to provide them with safety and find them a permanent loving connection if they cannot be returned to their first family. In a timely fashion.

Somewhere along the way we, as a nation, forgot our promise and many children like Ali “bounce” through a series of homes, schools, and people.. We know that all children need to belong and be connected to loving people. They need to feel cherished. Without these basic cornerstones, children become lost souls. Imagine if Ali and her half million peers who are experiencing foster care were connected to a group of adults who value, honor, love and support them. Imagine the difference this would make. For their lives, our communities, schools, prisons and society.

The Treehouse Foundation does imagine a different life for our children in foster care. For the past decade we have been investing in widspread innovation designed to ensure that all children live healthy and productive lives. We envision every child being woven into a safety net of loving, respectful and caring relationships.

In 2006 we opened our first multigenerational Treehouse Community to pro-actively address our nation’s “aging out” crisis. Every year in this country 25,000 young Americans “age out” of our public foster care system alone. Without a family to claim them and an extended family standing beside them, they are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, teen parenting, unemployment and lives of poverty.

The Treehouse Community model invites Americans of all ages to help children. It demonstrates how we can work together to move youngsters out of foster care into permanent loving adoptive homes so they are never at risk of “aging out”. We are dissolving the foster care pipeline to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

For the past 7 years, over 100 people, ranging in age from newborn to 94, have been investing in one another’s health and well-being. Kids are moving out of the child welfare system, being adopted by caring families, consistently supported by their neighbors, succeeding in school, getting the mental health services they need, and heading off on career paths or to college where they are pursuing their interests.

In 2010, the Treehouse Foundation launched the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement to harness creative ideas and leverage resources to better serve our children and youth. In addition to planning and hosting 4 annual Re Envisioning Foster Care in America Conferences and facilitating the development of 8 regional REFCA Working Groups, the Treehouse Foundation is leading the creation of a regional REFCA Road Map and Implementation Plan Process for western Massachusetts – a template that can replicated coast to coast.

Children in foster care are homeless in the deepest sense. Many have lost their first families, their innocence and their dreams. The Treehouse Foundation is working non-stop to create a Culture of Possibility so that every child in America is given the opportunity to live a life that is valued, supported and well lived.

Ali and her peers deserve to thrive. They are worthy of our investment. Please help the Treehouse Foundation achieve widespread impact. Go to refca.net and donate $50, $100, $25) or more today. Help us Be The Change! Thank You!

Remembering…

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Fourteen years ago a little girl with dark brown eyes and long curly hair entered my life. She was absolutely adorable. Today I met a little girl who looks just like her..

I was standing in the kitchen washing the dishes when the dog started barking. Then I heard a soft knock on the front door. When I opened it there she was in the arms of my neighbor. Bright and beautiful. She too is one of six siblings placed in foster care.

It was such a gorgeous day that we all decided to go out in the backyard. After exploring the magical contents of our Play House we checked out the playground. She climbed up in the tire swing and took it for a spin. After an hour of enjoying each other’s company she changed into a lovely party dress and said, “Good bye!”

I walked back through my yard remembering…

Picnics
Dress up
Doll houses
Playgrounds
Trips to the beach
Saying goodnight to the horses
Dolls galore
Baths in the sink
Riding bikes
Watering flowers
Running through the sprinkler
Swimming for hours
The playroom
Trips to the zoo
Drumlin Farm
All those fun pink dresses

Then I got in the car and drove my youngest daughter to the barn so she could visit one of her favorite horses. Shortly after we arrived her sister drove in. She is the spitting image of the beautiful little girl who came to play in my backyard this morning. Beautiful brown eyes. Dark curly hair. All grown up.

As the girls put their horse back in the field, I leaned on the fence admiring the view: two sisters engaged in conversation. Fourteen years goes by so quickly. I can still see two little sisters climbing up their slide and learning how to swing. I remember their laughter, their curiosity, and how they enjoyed exploring the world.

I hope the beautiful little girl who visited me this morning comes back to play soon. I’m ready to welcome another little one into my life.

Home Sweet Home

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I was the world traveler in my family. I spent a great deal of time in my twenties and thirties visiting other countries, soaking up the sights and sounds of each new culture I explored.

My oldest daughter has taken over that role now. A self described “language nerd”, she is fluent in Dutch, Thai, Arabic and Spanish. One of her little sister’s favorite treats would be having her bedtime stories read in a mixture of languages – one page in English, the next in Dutch, then Thai and so on. She would listen intently and then say, “Do it again!” or “Now read it with a British accent!” when the rotation was complete. It’s a happy childhood memory for us both!

The other day my daughter came home from one of her global adventures. She was really sick. We surrounded her with love and helped her get back on her feet. We were there to provide food, comfort, transportation, kindness, compassion – the full family safety net.

Last night when I went downstairs to check on the dog my daughter was in the kitchen, standing in front of the pantry, scanning the shelves. She was feeling hungry. A good sign.

I am delighted to have her home with us. Relieved that she’s feeling better. Full of love and appreciation for the joy she brings to our lives. As I watched her make a selection from the pantry, I remarked that I enjoy it when my kids come home and know that they are welcome to help themselves to whatever they need because they are “home”. “Within reason!” I joked.

Observing her, I thought about the meaning of family and home for the 25,000 young Americans who “age out” of foster care alone every year. Kids like my daughter, who launch out in the world without the benefit of a loving family and a caring community to tap into when they need a nourishing meal, feel sick, require a bit of respite from the world, want to celebrate their birthdays or come home for special events and holidays.

I recalled my own successful launch out into the world, made possible by a loving community of family and friends, who invested in me daily and let me know that they were there for me whenever I needed them.

They gave me courage, believed in my dreams, and created a culture of possibility for my success in the world. Experiencing their ongoing support makes it possible for me to live my life by their motto: PASS IT ON! Kindness. Caring. Support.

It is something I do for all of the young people I love and hopefully inspire all of us to do for our nation’s youngsters who have been removed from their first families and placed in foster care.

All of us want to be appreciated and validated, cared for and authentically loved. It is essential for our well-being, our health, and our humanity.

As I watched my daughter cut up a banana for her yogurt, I imagined every youngster whose life has been impacted by foster care, standing in their own kitchens, feeling the love and sense of home that my daughter was enjoying in that moment.

Every child rooted in family and community. All across America.

It’s an image that fills me with joy and peace…

Let’s start at the very beginning

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Ensuring that young children placed in foster care have safe, secure environments in which to develop healthy brains, bodies and attachments with primary caregivers is good for the children and it helps build a strong foundation for a thriving, prosperous society.

Currently in the world of child welfare, philanthropists, policy makers and practitioners are focused on resolving the “Aging Out Crisis”. This is due to the fact that every year nearly 30,000 young Americans “age out” of foster care.

While most young people in the United States continue to receive support from their families into their 20s, young people who “age out” of foster care often lack this support. To successfully transition to adulthood, youth need both a permanent family relationship and skills for independent living. Young people who “age out” of foster care alone and without a diploma or job skills face joblessness, homelessness and lives of poverty. They are often unable to complete their educations, find housing or get medical care.

According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities initiative, a three state study shows that:

* Nearly 40% had been homeless or “couch surfed” since leaving foster care.
* Only 48% were working, compared to 72% of their peers who had not been in foster care.
* Only 6% of young people who left foster care finished a 2 or 4 year college degree.

The majority of foster care investments are being poured into this critical arena because it is the gateway to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

While this is understandable, focusing such a large portion of our resources on the door out of foster care is not the best long term strategy for creating solutions to the national “Aging Out Crisis”. We need to begin investing fully on the front end of the foster care experience and learn how to utilize people, dollar and idea resources all along a child’s developmental spectrum.

To do this, it is imperative that we flip the current foster care paradigm. We live in a country where citizens help pay for the child welfare system with their tax dollars. In order to create a successful system – one that truly meet the needs of all children placed in foster care – we need to remain engaged rather than only paying attention when something goes wrong.

We make a promise when removing children from their family of birth. We promise them a better life: safety, stability, and a committed and enduring family relationship if they cannot return safely to their first family.

The children need us. Our overwhelmed and under resourced child welfare system requires our help. To create a new reality in America, we need a different approach. One that ensures that every child is rooted in family and community.

In his book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, Dr. Shonkoff underscores the value of investing in young children. He and his colleagues at Harvard’s Center of the Developing Child share research that shows how the architecture of the brain is impacted by early childhood trauma. They talk about the importance of a child’s early environment and nurturing relationships.

Shonkoff writes, “The scientific evidence on the significant developmental impacts of early experiences, caregiving relationships, and environmental threats is incontrovertible. Virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning early in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years. The science of early development is also clear about the specific importance of parenting and of regular caregiving relationships..”

New knowledge creates new responsibility. This scientific research and information about new national approaches gives those of us who are serving children placed in foster care a new platform from which we can enact bold and comprehensive new measures all along a child’s developmental timeline.

I am proud to announce that the Treehouse Foundation is collaborating with our regional Re-Envisioning Foster Care Partners, Enchanted Circle Theatre and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, to develop an Early Childhood Wellness Project. We are currently seeking multi-year funding to develop an Early Childhood Wellness Approach for western Massachusetts.

We have prioritized two content areas for our initial program development:

* Strengthening the early foundations of lifelong health and well-being.

* Enhancing the resources and capacities of healthy attachments.

The Early Childhood Wellness Project is creating an environment that nurtures new ways of thinking, supports strategic risk-taking, and values the importance of investing in young children experiencing foster care.

The importance of fresh thinking and widespread investment in early childhood innovation has never been more critical. Please join us and help improve life outcomes for the nearly 1,000 young children ages 0-5 who are experiencing foster care in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Thank You Grandma Joyce!

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It’s hard to imagine life without Grandma Joyce. She was an integral part of my life for over forty years.

I met her at the age of 19, the summer after my first year of college. My sister was dating her son. She was beautiful, vibrant and kind. A mother of seven. She wore colorful clothes and had a dazzling smile. She spoke with a lovely New Zealand accent. I was immediately drawn to her.

My parents adored Joyce. So did my grandmother. They were all delighted when my sister and her son decided to marry. She and my sister were kindred spirits. They became dear friends who celebrated their life journeys together. Joyce was a treasured family member. I remember the day that she called to inform me that my father was dying and it was time for me to come home. Her gentle voice was filled with compassion as she gave me the news. I was 22 years old and living 3,000 miles from home.

Joyce grew up in an orphanage in New Zealand. It was there that she taught herself how to knit with two nails and a piece of string while sitting outside in the dirt. After World War II she married a GI and moved to the United States, bringing her hopes, dreams and creative knitting talent with her.

Joyce was the kind of knitter who needed no pattern. She could whip up a poncho, hat, blanket, socks, mittens, sweater or dress, for a person or a doll, in no time. Grandmother of 18 and great grandmother of 20+, she made sure that all of her offspring had of one her handmade treasures.

She was generous with other people too. One of the most cherished Grandma Joyce items in our house was a purple sweater she made for my youngest daughter. Joyce had her choose her favorite color of yarn, decorated the collar with a festive weave and added buttons that brought a smile to her face every time she put it on. She called it her “Grandma Joyce sweater” and loved it so much that she asked Joyce to knit another one so that she and her big sister could match. They looked so cute in those sweaters and the ponchos and hats that came later.

Over the years, Joyce taught me about grace, patience and the importance of choosing to be aligned with good people in your life. She showed me how to embrace joy and modeled forgiveness. When I was teaching, I looked to her for inspiration. I loved her hands-on teaching style.

She showed me how to knit and crochet when I was 20. I made a few ponchos and blankets but settled for knitting scarves in the end. That’s because all I ever wanted to do was plunk down next to her on the couch and share a pot of tea. Being near Joyce filled me with peace.

A few years ago, we were seated together knitting on my sister’s couch. At the end of the day, she looked over at me with a twinkle in her eye and asked for my permission to straighten out the scarf I had been working on. I hadn’t been paying attention to what I was doing. I was too busy talking to my brother-in-law who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. While she ripped out a great portion of my uneven knitting I smiled and put my head on her shoulder. I didn’t care about the scarf. I had received my gift for the day: time with my beloved brother-in-law and sitting shoulder to shoulder with her.

Over the years I have known many kind, generous and loving people. Grandma Joyce stands out as one of the most loving of all. I am so glad she was part of my life and that our entire family was blessed by her goodness for so long. Peace to you Joyce. And profound appreciation for the joy you brought us all.

What Are You The Most Proud Of?

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Winning the 2012 Purpose Prize has given me an amazing opportunity. For the past month I have been talking with a group of national reporters about what it takes to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. What a gift! I discuss the REFCA Initiative and all three non-profit organizations I have established over the past decade: the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm. I hope these interviews inspire widespread investment in foster care innovation.

As I share my story – from the moment I read a newspaper article about a five month old baby who was kidnapped from his foster home in broad daylight in 1998 until today – and answer all of the questions that folks who are new to child welfare might have, I always find myself wanting to spend another hour chatting about the subject. Compressing 15 years of life experience, collaborative social change and innovative investments into a 20 minute interview is a challenge.

Sometimes I’m on my game. Usually I am concise and on point. Then there are other times when I hang up the phone and I look down to discover that my hands are still moving. (Ask anyone who knows me. I talk with my hands alot. I used to teach hearing impaired children so sign language is second nature to me!). I’m not quite done answering their last question…

During an interview today one reporter asked me a great question: “Of all of the work you have done over the past ten years, what is the one thing that you are the most proud of?”

It took me a minute to collect my thoughts. I recalled standing in my toy store in Brookline, MA, rocking my youngest daughter to sleep. This was the moment when I began Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America, the moment when I decided to sell my businesses and focus my attention on flipping the foster care paradigm.

As a foster parent I realized that the model we have been operating from is not working well. It became clear that when we hand over our children in foster care to a government agency to parent and then walk away, the outcomes are not good – for the children, the nation, and our under-resourced child welfare system. The ramifications of not paying attention until something goes wrong were obvious. This societal disconnect seemed to be the root cause of our collective failure to prevent foster care from creating the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

Wrapping my brain around all of this, while learning that every year in this country 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care alone and at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen parenting and lives of poverty, proved to be a powerful catalyst for me to Re-Envision Foster Care in America.

The beautiful baby falling asleep in my arms was another powerful motivator. It was crystal clear that this little one, her siblings and peers who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care deserve to be cherished and surrounded by caring communities of people who invest in their lives on a daily basis.

As my daughter fell asleep, I began thinking about the fact that most Americans believe there are only two ways they can support a child placed in the public foster care system: become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care. This is too much to ask of most people. The result: millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most. That was the moment when my role became apparent. My job: get those people to stop, turn around and come back to the kids.

I knew this could only be accomplished if folks had a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options available to them. Developing this vibrant REFCA Menu became my top priority. I sold my stores and since 2002 have collaborated with visionaries, funders and stakeholders of all ages and backgrounds to create an amazing array of new opportunities in order to better serve children and youth placed in foster care.

Together with this amazing group of collaborative social change agents, I have:

* Established three non-profit organizations for the compelling new REFCA Menu of Engagement Options.
* Invited citizens to become resources to children in their communities.
* Raised over $15 million to invest in foster care innovation.
* Leveraged people, dollar and idea resources to better serve children and youth placed in foster care.
* Sponsored three annual Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America conferences and planned a fourth.
* Created stellar public/private partnerships among non-profits, businesses, colleges, universities and
government agencies.
* Facilitated three regional REFCA Working Groups: Aging Out/Transitions, Education and Permanency.
* Researched best practice regional and national programs.
* Brought people together to create a regional REFCA Road Map and Implementation Plan.
* Consulted with top-notch teams of researchers to track our progress.
* Developed sustained replicable program models that other states can use.
* Shared our learning with others around the country.

This is the work I am the most proud of…collaborating with a group of visionary Americans of all ages and backgrounds to launch a dynamic social change movement designed to create an array of public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy and maximize financial resources to better serve our children and youth placed in foster care.

Making it possible for ordinary citizens to turn around, come back and become resources to youngsters in their communities who need them for an hour, a day, a week or a life time. Weaving a vibrant safety net for our most vulnerable children, our communities and our child welfare system. Giving people many more opportunities to pay attention and plug in. I am proud of helping flip the foster care paradigm!

Passing The Baton

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Happy New Year!

Since 2002 I have partnered with a cohort of fabulous people to help inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative represents a vision: A nation where people of all ages invest their time, treasure and talent to support children and youth who have been removed from their homes and placed in our child welfare system; a country where communities collaborate with social service agencies and everyone prospers—solutions are created, innovations are born and both achieve much more than they ever could alone.

It has been a stellar decade. Collaborating with out-of-the-box thinkers, I have established three non-profit organizations: the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm. Each organization is designed to bring citizens together to stand under the banner of Shared Responsibility. Standing shoulder to shoulder we take the next steps forward to create vibrant public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy, and maximize financial resources in order to better serve our youngsters experiencing foster care.

Together we are building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so Americans of all ages can become resources to our nation’s children who have been placed in foster care. This is critical because most Americans think there are only two ways to support our nation’s youngsters placed in foster care. Become a foster parent or adopt a child from our child welfare system. This is simply too much to ask of most people. The result: millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most. An innovative Menu of Engagement Options gives folks a whole new set of opportunities; exciting and imaginative ways to help children from coast to coast.

All successful nonprofits begin with visionary leaders who provide the enthusiasm, focus, tenacity and support needed to transform inspiration into dynamic organizations. As nonprofits grow and mature, they need to develop a focused strategic approach to build fiscal capacity and organizational infrastructure. This growth process begins in the start up phase.

As we enter 2013, the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm are all in different phases of their growth and development cycles. Each one has it’s own governing board and it’s own staff. Each one requires something different from me. Recently, a remarkable philanthropist offered to take Birdsong Farm to the next level of it’s organizational development. Knowing what the start up phase requires of a founder, I have spent the past few months evaluating my role with the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections to see which one was truly ready for me to pass the baton. After careful assessment, I have chosen to rotate off of the Sibling Connections board of directors. It is a good time for the next generation of board members, staff and volunteers to carry the organization forward to serve sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care.

As a former business owner and the parent of a teen, a twentysomething and a thirtysomething, I have learned the role that grace plays when transitioning into a new era in a long term relationship. I have also learned the value of being available in the wings should the need for my expertise arise. I will apply these important lessons to my transition from Sibling Connections. Meanwhile, I will be cheering Sibling Connections on from the sidelines as I continue to build the Treehouse Foundation and open the door to a new chapter in the Birdsong Farm story.

Each New Year brings opportunities our way. I give thanks for each one and for all of the people, experiences and lessons learned while helping to develop Sibling Connections. My family will continue to support this fine organization. They will show up for Season 9 of Camp To Belong MA to volunteer as a camp counselor, CTB MA photographer and a volunteer in the CTB MA Horse Program.

Many thanks to all of the wonderful volunteers who make Sibling Connections year round programming possible. You are the backbone of the organization and I am proud to have served alongside you. I know you, the staff and board will take the baton and run with it in to honor the lives of sisters and brothers who are separated when placed in foster care. Best of Luck!

A Wonderful Woman

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Since 2005 I have had the honor and the distinct pleasure of working side by side with a wonderful woman named Kerry Homstead. Together we have built the Treehouse Community and launched the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative. Standing under the banner of Shared Responsibility we cast a bold vision: Every Child Rooted In Family & Community.

Kerry has spent her entire career supporting children and families. When we met she was working at Smith College. Our official Treehouse Foundation titles are Founder/Executive Director and Treehouse Community Facilitator. For seven years we have functioned as a team. We are equals. I have profound respect for Kerry. She is intelligent, thoughtful, wise and trustworthy. Just ask Treehouse community members
and our Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America partners!

Kerry Homstead is also highly professional and diplomatic – two traits that come in very handy when you are engaged in collaborative social change. Recently, after winning the Purpose Prize, I found myself thinking about all of the layers of engagement required to be a successful social change agent. Diplomacy is key. I went to the dictionary and looked up the definition of the word diplomat. It said, “A person who deals with people tactfully or skillfully.” That’s Kerry.

I used to think the best way to describe the Treehouse Community Facilitator’s role was “something akin to a faith based leader”. I have now refined my explanation of the job description to “something akin to a faith based leader and a diplomat”. Diplomacy is the key to Kerry’s approach. She is accessible, discreet, flexible, solution oriented and able to handle all manner of life circumstances with grace (read juggle five balls in the air while scanning the horizon for new balls coming up and old balls falling gently downward). She is a fabulous listener and a seasoned professional who generously shares her time with anyone who visits, lives and works on Treehouse Circle.

For the past twenty years I have kept an Appreciation Journal. Every morning I begin my day acknowledging all that I am thankful for. Every evening I do the same. This writing practice keeps me grounded in goodness. Paying attention to all of the positives in my life helps me stay in the moment and accomplish so much more as a social entrepreneur, mom, wife, friend, sister, child advocate, neighbor and citizen.

When I look back through my appreciations over the past seven years Kerry’s name comes up daily. I appreciate her work ethic, her dedication, her thoughtful responses, her respectful collaboration, her kindness, her authenticity. I am grateful for her patience, her calm approach, her amazing skill set.

This morning I appreciate having the opportunity to head into the Conference Room and wrap holiday presents with her – an annual tradition that allows us to show all of the children and youth living on Treehouse Circle just how much we love and appreciate them at this time of the year. I know that when I come home tonight spending time with Kerry selecting gifts and writing holiday cards for the kids is something I will write about in my Appreciation Journal. I’m sure there will be other pieces of our day together that I will also note.

Thank you Kerry. You are an inspiration and a role model to us all. Having you in my life and on this Re-Envisioning Foster Care Journey is such a blessing. I look forward to the lessons we will learn together as our work unfolds in the new year!

Life On Treehouse Circle

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If you walk into the Treehouse Community Center these days you will hear
the rat-a-tat sound of a floor drill. We are replacing the floor in the
Gathering Space – the largest area of the TCC where we all gather for Soup Tastings, Treehouse Teas, homework, birthday parties, adoption celebrations, Re- Envisioning Foster Care Working Group meetings, sign language classes, seasonal fiestas, celebrations of life, art projects, pot lucks, regional gatherings,and much more!

Replacing the floor has given us an opportunity to use many other parts of the Community Center to host events. Last week-end the HEROES Youth Leadership
Project used the Kitchen, Library and Foyer when making a film.
“Grace & Flexibility” is our motto!

Yesterday afternoon I opened the door to the Library and was delighted to
encounter more than a dozen people, ranging in age from 3 weeks old to
65 years, engaged in an array of activities. “What fun!”, I thought and
immediately walked over to meet our newest Treehouse
community member who was sleeping in the arms of a loving neighbor.

After greeting everyone I found an open spot at the Homework Table where
Westfield State interns, a young girl and a lovely elder were making Christmas
tree ornaments and two teens were researching job openings at the Holyoke Mall.

Treehouse Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead, was reading
a college application essay that had just been completed by one of our
high school seniors. As she gave him feedback our Treehouse Tutor checked
in with another youth who had requested help with her homework. They decided
to go to the Conference Room where they could work on a project that required
more space and a quieter work environment. A Treehouse staff member was
seated on the couch engaged in a lively discussion with several young people.

Kerry finished reading the college application essay and began to take photos
of the group. A mom walked in and asked if the tutor might have time to fit her daughter into the day’s Homework Help schedule. After she signed her up, she
headed out to take her younger daughter to an appointment. Arrangements
were made to transport her daughter home after the science homework was
complete.

Conversations in English, Spanish, Spanglish and Sign Language filled
the room. When our newest Treehouse community member woke up and needed
a diaper change, I offered to help. We were all delighted that the baby
was waking up. As we made our way through the foyer to the bathroom we
spoke gently to her. For a community of people who are on a mission to
serve children whose lives have been impacted by foster care, we are honored
to have the opportunity to support the health and well-being of infants,
toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary aged children, middle schoolers, teens
and young adults living on Treehouse Circle.

As I placed the baby gently onto the changing table and began to unfold
her tiny diaper, the door to the Women’s Room opened and a lovely young
woman requested a ride to the high school so she could attend an important
meeting. Her mom was still at work and had suggested that her daughter
walk down to the Treehouse Community Center to see if someone was available
to help out. Her kind neighbor said, “Sure!” and off they went.

After the baby had been diapered and was carefully wrapped up in a colorful
fleece blanket, her family arrived to pick her up. We exchanged greetings,
hugs and information. Then they headed home. Another mom stopped by to pick
up her mail and chat. One of the Treehouse staff members took a group of kids
outside for some fresh air. They headed for the playground.

The workers put their drills away and began to pack up. The afternoon’s
Sign Language class ended and students stopped by the Library to check on
our progress and share what they learned during their time together. The
young man who had been working on his college application essay wished everyone
a good night and went home to eat dinner. Two of his siblings came over to the Library as he was leaving and began their homework.

Those of us who had been making Christmas tree ornaments congratulated one
another on our success – a lovely tray of handcrafted bells.

As I was cutting out my last felt leaf of the day, I heard laughter. Glancing
up, I had the pleasure of seeing two young friends, one deaf and one hearing,
engaged in a conversation about a movie they had both clearly enjoyed. As they conversed their moms and siblings were making plans to get together later in
the week.

Life on Treehouse Circle is full of connection, goodness and belonging.
Something we all need. I’m delighted that replacing the Treehouse Community
Center floor has given us this opportunity to gather together and share our
lives in such caring and creative ways!

Earth, Wind & Fire

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Over the past decade I’ve driven back and forth across the state hundreds of times. While heading to Treehouse, Camp To Belong MA, Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conferences, Sibling Sundays and meetings of all kinds, I always have some fun music playing in my car. A few weeks ago it was a CD with my favorite songs from the TV show Nashville.

This week, after winning the Purpose Prize, I asked my husband for some music from Earth, Wind & Fire! I needed something celebratory. Something snappy that I could sing along with.

Today, with joyful music playing in the background, I began thinking of all the amazing people that have come together to Re-Envision Foster Care in America since
I sold my businesses and began this journey in 2002. Earth, Wind & Fire inspired me to appreciate them all.

At the Grand Opening of the Treehouse Community in 2006, we unfurled a scroll
that featured the names of all the people who made the building of the Treehouse Community possible. I had such a good time making that scroll. While writing the names, I fondly remembered the contributions that each person made. I recalled
their generosity and their talents. So many people. All focused on the health
and well-being of the kids.

Looking out across the sea of faces that had gathered to celebrate the mission and vision of Treehouse, I was struck by the generosity of spirit that filled the room. We were all there to bless the lives of our children and youth placed in foster care. You could actually feel our collective desire to invest in foster care innovation.
So much goodness..

I have felt that same collective goodness at Camp To Belong MA when the buses arrive in the Berkshires full of sisters and brothers from all over the state. It was there
at our first Birdsong Farm Summer Enrichment Program. It’s definitely alive in the Treehouse Community Center during community wide events and celebrations. Folks definitely want to do what’s right for the kids.

If I created a scroll now – one that listed ALL of the people who have helped make the Treehouse Community, the Treehouse Foundation, the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative, Sibling Connections, Camp To Belong MA, Sibling Sundays and Birdsong Farm possible, it would extend all the way around the Treehouse Community Center.

Since 2002 we have been actively creating a collaborative social change movement
and a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so that Americans of all ages can become resources to children in their communities.

Treehouse and it’s partners have raised over $15 million to support foster care innovation. We are using the money to develop vibrant public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy, and maximize financial resources in order to better serve our nation’s children experiencing foster care.
Replicable partnership and program models that we hope to share with communities
from coast to coast.

We call our collaborative social change movement the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative. Would you like to join us? Go to birdsongfarm.org, treehousecommunities.org, and siblingconnections.org. We’ll show what Re-Envisioning Foster Care looks like!

The Purpose Prize

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Oh, what a beautiful morning! Calls from reporters who want to interview me about winning this year’s Purpose Prize are coming in fast and furious! I am elated.

It is such an honor to win the Encore/AARP award. Being able to stand on the
national stage to talk about foster care innovation is a privilege. Getting
millions of Americans to think about how we can all come together to enhance the lives of children and youth placed in foster care makes my heart sing. Telling
people about the work of the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and
Birdsong Farm fills me with joy.

The Encore/AARP Purpose Prize award shines a light on the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative that we launched in 2010. It holds the Treehouse Community/Hub of Innovation model up for consideration. It celebrates the year-round Sibling Connection program model we created for sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care. It moves people to go onto the Birdsong Farm website
to learn about our exciting farm based Education Center.

Thank You!
To the person who nominated me, to the folks who supported my nomination and to the national Encore/Purpose Prize trustees who found my work over the past decade worthy of national recognition.

The reporters are asking lots of great questions. Hopefully, they will write an
array of interesting stories that inspire philanthropists, foundations and
ordinary citizens to make generous donations so we can build on all of the
goodness that has been created over the past ten years.

Here are some of my favorite questions so far:

“You just won a national award for inspiring a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. How does that feel?”

“When you first started out Re-Envisioning Foster Care a decade ago, did you ever imagine that you would win a national award?”

“I hear the Purpose Prize national vetting process is rigorous. Were you surprised that you made the cut given all of the competition?”

“You say that most Americans think there are only two ways they can support a child placed in foster care: Become a foster parent and/or Adopt a child from foster care. The result: Millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most. Is that why you began to Re-Envision Foster Care in America?”

“You became a foster parent at the age of 48 and completely changed your life: you sold your businesses, became a full time child advocate and established three non-profits to begin building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so Americans of all ages could become resources to children in foster care. Are you proud of your accomplishments?”

“You clearly believe in collaborative social change. Each one of your non-profits has developed many unique partnerships. What is it about the power of partnership that you find so compelling?”

“ Your Re-Envisioning Foster Care Menu of Engagement Options is growing bigger every year. Do you plan to share it with people in other states?”

“You have hosted three annual Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conferences since 2010, with a fourth planned for May 2013. Do people attend to learn more about foster care innovation?”

“Last week the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth came to Treehouse to hear about the Treehouse Community model and the Re- Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative. Do you think they left feeling inspired?”

“You won the Congressional Angel in Adoption Award in 2010. How do these important national awards like the Purpose Prize and the Congressional Angel in Adoption Award help you? Does it give you more credibility? Can you access more funding to better serve children and to replicate the innovative program models you have developed: The Treehouse Community, a year-round Sibling Connection initiative and the Birdsong Farm Education Center?

“What do you hope the Purpose Prize will do for children and youth in foster care?”

“Are you really going to invest all of the Purpose Prize money you were awarded in foster care innovation?”

The answer to that last question is, “Yes!”

Every year, 25,000 young people leave our public foster care system alone and head out into the world without all of the supports that we take for granted: enduring family relationships, community connections, a home.

My colleagues and I believe that this number should be zero! We believe that every child should be rooted in family and community so they are never at risk of “aging out” of the care and support we all need.

To Reporters Everywhere: Please keep the calls and questions coming!
I am profoundly grateful to have won this prestigious national award. I vow to
use it to help inspire widespread investment in foster care innovation.

Here’s to the kids!
Here’s to Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America!
Here’s to everyone who supports the REFCA Menu of Engagement Options!

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Tis the Season

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REFCA Newsletter October

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Fourth Annual REFCA Conference Date!

Power of Partnership

Our six year Camp To Belong MA partnership with Beaver Summer Programs makes my heart sing! It is a wonderful example of how 900+ families in the Boston area, who send their children to the fabulous summer day camp at Beaver Country Day School, step up to the plate to support youngsters who have been placed in foster care.

We are delighted that each summer visionary BSP Director, Nat Saltonstall, educates and engages his outstanding staff and all of the BSP camper families. The BSP staff then inspires campers of all ages (BSP serves youngsters ages 3 – 15) to support CTB MA campers. The result: every August we drive a big truck up to BSP’s front door in Chestnut Hill, MA and fill it with loads of brand new sleeping bags, pillows, pillow cases, beach towels, duffle bags, flash lights, batteries and more! All collected to give to sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care.

This wonderful partnership yields such incredible goodness! The donations are collected by campers in a beautiful leafy suburb of Boston, driven across the Commonwealth to a gorgeous camp in the Berkshires, unpacked by fabulous volunteer CTB MA counselors, and made available to siblings who travel from all parts of the state to spend the week together creating joyous shared memories.

Beaver campers learn about their peers who are experiencing foster care. They have an opportunity to reach out to them – one camper to another – and make sure that they have the basic resources they need to have a wonderful week together. Some are learning about foster care for the first time. Finding out about that over 75% of all sisters and brothers who are placed in foster care live in separate homes and typically do not get to see one another on a regular basis. They discover that a group of citizens are creating new programs to change that reality. And, BSP campers get to be part of that change.

We are profoundly grateful to Nat and his awesome Beaver Summer Program Team of campers, families and staff. They hit the ball out of the park every summer. We are so glad they are our CTB MA Partners. Camp To Belong MA simply would not be the same without their kindness and generosity!

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Pure Treehouse!

He’s That Good!

On July 24, 2007 I received an email from Connie Harris, our Camp To Belong MA counselor outreach coordinator. The opening line read: “Wow… This is the first reference I have received for Byron. Pretty impressive.”

I eagerly read Connie’s email. Then I printed the reference out and tucked it away. Every year I take it out and re-read it. It’s the best reference letter I have ever seen.. Truly genuine and written by a pro. Here are my favorite parts.

“Byron is incredibly thoughtful and amazingly good with kids. He is, quite simply, one of the most natural teachers I have ever known. He cares passionately, he has a wonderful sense of humor, and he is possessed of almost incurably upbeat energy.

I could go on. But if I’m right in understanding that this is a job working with children in foster care, I don’t think I need to – or should. Grab him. Grab him by the ankle and don’t let him go. You will be delighted you did. More than that, the kids with whom he works will have an extraordinary time with him. He deserves to touch such lives. And such young people deserve to get to know Byron.

Please know that it would be hard to imagine doing any better than hiring Byron Thomas. He’s that good.”

We grabbed him …. As a teacher, I couldn’t wait to meet Byron and see him in action. From the moment he met the campers it was clear – he is that good! When Byron’s fabulous energy is mixed in with all of the goodness that his fellow counselors bring to the kids, I can’t stop smiling!

Byron came to Camp To Belong MA as a volunteer counselor for the first time in 2007, with his amazing wife Kyessa. Last summer he took on the role of our CTB MA Youth Leader. This August he’s coming back to lead us forward into our 8th season, and we are delighted to have him!

Join Byron and the 2012 CTB MA Crew in the Berkshires. August 18 – 25. We will welcome sisters and brothers from all across the Commonwealth. Siblings who have been separated when placed in foster care. Kids ages 8 – 20 who look forward to spending the week with Byron and our stellar team of CTB MA volunteer counselors.

What will they be doing ??! Let’s see… This year’s schedule offers campers the opportunity to create joyous shared memories while riding horses, climbing the rock wall, swinging from the flying trapeeze, swimming, boating, enjoying a carnival, celebrating one another at a camp wide birthday party, singing, dancing, being artistic and, enjoying one another’s company. In short, hanging out being kids. Together.

Father’s Day

Father’s Day in our family this year meant “Happy Father’s Day” phone calls & creative presents from our two oldest in San Francisco and Chicago. Our seventh grader gave thirteen little presents to her dad. She decided that since he’s been her Everyday Dad for thirteen years, he deserved one fun momento to honor each year of their father-daughter relationship.

As we were chatting about what might be good options, we discussed his varied interests: photography, tennis, cooking, music, reading, movies, travel. We made a list of playful accoutrements that go along with each interest and what was in our budget. We sifted through thirteen years of father-daughter memories and fondly recalled various “Dad Moments”.

When the list was finalized, she reminded me that we had run out of dog food. I volunteered to go pick some up at the store. While they were editing some photos she recently took on his computer, I slipped out the door with the list in my pocket.

On my way to the store I felt deeply grateful for my daughter’s cleverness and my partner’s steadfast parenting. This is a Dad we can all count on. For the past thirty one years he has shopped, cooked, cleaned, folded laundry, dropped off, picked up, went to work, came home, mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, shoveled the driveway, supported each one of his children’s passions, shared his interests, taught the kids about east coast customs that native Californians are clueless about (ice skating, sledding, shoveling, layering, seasonal closet changes), and took beautiful photos of them all.

That’s what Everyday Dads do. They show up, care deeply, and make sure that each one of their children feel strong, loved and successful. They earn those Father’s Day presents and so much more!

New England Patriots Honor Treehouse Elder!

I was standing under a tree watching my daughter’s horse back riding lesson. It was a Friday afternoon. My cell phone rang. It was a call from the New England Patriots. A lovely Patriots staff member informed me that Treehouse community member, Rosa Young, had been chosen to receive a prestigious 2012 Myra Kraft Community MVP Award for her outstanding volunteer service to the Treehouse Foundation. Recently Rosa attended an awards ceremony at Gillette Stadium. She thoroughly enjoyed meeting MVP quarterback Tom Brady and hugging Patriots owner Robert Kraft. This is why she was honored..

In 2006 while listening to NPR in her home state of Michigan, retiree Rosa Young heard a story about Treehouse – a brand new planned multi-generational community in Massachusetts where children who had experienced foster care were being given the chance to thrive in permanent loving homes and live in a vibrant neighborhood where elders volunteered as “grandparents” and served as mentors to children and families – a village where children found not just parents, but also grandparents, playmates and an entire neighborhood designed to help them grow up in a secure, nurturing environment.

Rosa listened closely. She had spent her career working with disabled adults north of Boston and was looking for a meaningful way to live in this new era of her life. She did her research and chose to become a volunteer grandparent at Treehouse. She describes the process: “.. My dog Chloe and I jumped in our PT Cruiser, overflowing with our belongings, and drove 1,000 miles to Treehouse. The description of the Treehouse Community in Easthampton on National Public Radio, a conversation with the Treehouse Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead, the Treehouse Foundation website, and other Treehouse materials had lured me to take a leap of faith and move. I could not be happier.”

“Four years after retiring, I wanted to settle down in a place where my contributions would make a difference in other people’s lives. Having an opportunity to help children in a meaningful way was paramount.”

Since moving to Massachusetts in 2006, Rosa has been a pillar of the Treehouse Community. She has woven a network of goodness and caring throughout the entire neighborhood where over 100 people, ranging in age from 4 – 93, live on Treehouse Circle. Rosa wakes up every morning and goes out into the world ready to serve her neighbors of all ages. She cares for the sick, supports families in need, brings joy to children and serves on the Treehouse Foundation board of directors. Rosa Young is an inspiration to us all. She is a selfless, humble, compassionate and awe inspiring Treehouse volunteer who lives the Treehouse mission every day of the year.

The impact of Rosa’s service is far reaching. Every week Rosa actively volunteers her time and expertise to support a family with five children. She picks the children up from school, feeds them dinner, helps them with their homework and provides a predictable, safe and loving environment for them which enhances their health and well-being, helps them successfully integrate into their adoptive family and succeed in school. In addition, Rosa provides their parents with respite and support. This concrete support, which extends across three generations, is reciprocated. Both the children and parents appreciate Rosa’s contributions to their family and are there for her in times of need.

Rosa also volunteers her time on several Treehouse Child, Family & Elder Teams, lending her expertise, life experience and wonderful energy to support Treehouse community members of all ages. Her willingness to help others deal with emerging needs enhances everyone’s well-being and strengthens the Treehouse Community model. Rosa is ready, willing and able to drive her peers to doctor’s appointments, fill out insurance forms, deliver food, care for children, sit with her neighbors who are ill, participate in community wide activities and help develop a strong and vibrant neighborhood where everyone is valued, cared for and appreciated. Rosa’s daily volunteer efforts help create a Culture of Possibility. Her friends call her “Treehouse Rose”!

As a Treehouse Foundation board member, Rosa’s position as Treasurer, is critical to the capacity building and sustainability of the organization. She brings her Treehouse community member perspective to the board and is a key Treehouse Ambassador. She helps raise money, host events, and shares knowledge and information about the value of the Treehouse Community Approach with others locally, regionally and nationally. Rosa volunteers her time as a Treehouse Ambassador to help change the foster care narrative in this country. Her generous contributions model what it takes to help a child whose life has been impacted by foster care thrive.

Rosa’s capacity to support children, families and elders living at Treehouse also extends beyond the actual neighborhood. Here is an example:

In 2004, one of her young neighbors who has Down’s Syndrome wanted to attend Camp To Belong MA, a wonderful summer camp program designed to serve sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care. She wanted to spend time with her younger sister who was living in another home in Connecticut. In order to attend CTB MA she required a full time one-on-one aid. As her mother and CTB MA staff were thoughtfully considering the options, Rosa offered to go to camp as a volunteer counselor. She packed up her suitcase, drove to CTB MA and spent the week helping this young camper move through the day successfully.

I do not believe that Rosa thinks of herself as a volunteer. She simply lives her life in a way that is aligned with her core values. She is filled with humility and a deep respect for others. That is her motivation for heading out the front door in the morning – to lend her warmth, goodness, expertise and compassion to those who might need a helping hand.

Rosa Young showed up at Treehouse ready, willing and able to volunteer her time, treasure and talent to actively support staff, neighbors and Treehouse Foundation board members. From the very first day she has been a value add to the Treehouse Community. Rosa radiates kindness, humor and intelligence. She is helpful to all. Rosa embodies the characteristics of an outstanding citizen and highly engaged community member:

• She lives by her own highest standards.
• She maintains dignity and grace in all circumstances.
• She helps elevate the behavior of others.
• She operates from a larger, inclusive perspective.
• She increases the quality of every Treehouse experience.
• She behaves with courtesy, respect, appreciation, gratitude & generosity of spirit.
• She strengthens the integrity of all situations.
• She increases the confidence and capabilities of others.
• She consistently finds new ways to make life better for others.

It is an honor to know Rosa and to have her goodness woven into the fabric of everyday life in the Treehouse Community. Her contributions help restore the health and well-being of vulnerable children, families and elders, build a vibrant and caring multi-generational community model for the nation and inspire a re-envisioning of foster care in America. Myra Kraft would have loved her!

Kindred Spirits!

Thirteen years ago when I became a foster parent, I had no idea that the heavy duty trash bags our social workers took out of their car and placed in my driveway were what most youngsters placed in foster care use as luggage…

I didn’t have a clue. Then I began talking to foster care alumni. It seems that garbage bags are frequently a topic of conversation when they get together. Recently I overheard a man and a woman who had grown up in foster care talking about their first pieces of real luggage. They spoke fondly about the colors and patterns of the suitcases, what they kept in them, and where they stored them in their rooms. “I remember when I traded my garbage bag in for that suitcase,” the woman said. “I was flying on Cloud Nine for days. Having my very own luggage boosted my self esteem. That suitcase was a sign that I was worthy. It became my ticket to success. I held my head higher when I was out in the world.”

Today I had the honor of driving over to 11 year old Emily’s house to pick up a car full of brand new duffle bags and suitcases for The Suitcase Project. This spring, Emily decided that she wanted to invest her time and energy supporting The Suitcase Project for the second year in a row. She approached her good friend Sarah and told her about it. They came up with a plan. They would check in with their teacher to see if all of the fifth grade classes at their school could pitch in. Thanks to their visionary teacher, the entire student body rallied to support the cause!

I drove up to Emily’s house. Sarah and her mom were carrying suitcases and duffle bags loaded with stuffed animals, journals, toiletries, baby supplies, socks, t-shirts and other goodies out to the front lawn. Emily and her mom came out of the front door right after them, arms loaded with additional items. The goodness in the air was palpable. We hugged and I told the girls how much we appreciate their vision, hard work and desire to support their peers who have been placed in foster care.

Emily and Sarah stood on the lawn behind their colorful collection to have their picture taken. They were delighted that this year’s donations will be given to social workers at the upcoming Third Annual Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Conference. They will take them to DCF area offices and share them with kids on their caseloads.

Making Suitcase Project items available to DCF staff has become a REFCA Conference tradition! I love setting up the Suitcase Project table! It reminds me of creating fun vignettes in my toy stores: suitcases & duffle bags of all sizes are set up next to colorful bins of Wish List items. Social workers are
invited to walk by and “shop” for kids on their caseloads.

I love pouring whimsy, color, light and resources into the world of child welfare. I have done it for the past seven years at Camp To Belong MA. We set up our Camp To Belong MA Supply Cabin before campers arrive. It is chock full of brand new sleeping bags, pillows, pillow cases, duffle bags, flash lights, toiletries and beach towels that our stellar partner, Beaver Summer Programs, donates to CTB MA. Those BSP campers and their families step right up to the plate to support the kids. They want to help children and youth placed in foster care and appreciate having an easy way to do so. Just like Emily and Sarah.

Thinking about Emily and Sarah makes me smile. They are two awesome 11 year old girls who want to make a difference. And they are! Plans are already underway for next year’s Suitcase Project collection drive. I applaud the girls and can’t wait to collaborate with them again. Looking back fifty years, I see myself at age 11. Emily, Sarah and I are definitely kindred spirits!

Re-Envisioning Foster Care!

Happy Mother’s Day!

I’ve been a mom since 1980.
I recall my first Mother’s Day.
May 1981…

I am a mom by birth and by adoption.
This year my youngest, who turned thirteen in December,
made a request: “Mom, instead of celebrating Mother’s Day,
can we please do something different? Can we make up a new family celebration?

“Sure!”
Thanks to all of the adoptive parents who have gone before me and graciously shared their wisdom, I understood the importance of her request.

We sat down and talked about which relationship in her first family she wanted to honor. She chose her big sister. We went to visit her sister’s adoptive family to see if they might be up for a few tweaks to their Mother’s Day plans. They were open and flexible so the girls put their heads together and came up with a new 2012 Family Holiday – Sister Day!

We arranged to have dinner together. That way each family could spend the earlier part of the day with other family members. To honor the occasion, my daughter bought her sister a Wicked Good Cupcake. In a jar. Her favorite kind.

She wanted to give her “aunt” a Sister Day gift too so she bought her some lovely soaps. To add a bit more whimsy to the festivities, I gave the girls some fun little whale chocolates from a store in Nantucket.

We had a lovely evening. The girls felt good about their first Sister Day. Next May we may celebrate it again. Or, my daughter may choose to honor a different family relationship. I know what I’ll be doing. Paying attention. I know that the most basic and powerful way to connect with another person is to listen. So that’s what I’ll be doing next spring. The rest will come. All I have to do is be present.

Arrival Day

On a beautiful May morning thirteen years ago today I woke up, got dressed, drove my 12 year old daughter to school, and went to work at No Kidding! – a wonderful specialty toy store in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was the day before my 48th birthday and I was in a celebratory mood. The sun was shining. Life was good. I was savoring this lush New England spring day.

I loved No Kidding! When my son was born I considered two paths: going back to school to get my PhD or owning a stellar neighborhood toy store that offered folks in the Greater Boston Area the finest in domestic and imported playthings. I opted for the second path. In 1983, with the help of friends and family, I purchased No Kidding!, a great little toy store in Brookline Village. Then I spent 16 years collaborating with a team of outstanding women to offer the community a unique No Kidding! experience. Together we served families in the best ways possible and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the process.

On this beautiful May morning, I entered the store and smiled. It was brimming with color, joy, whimsy and light. Janet Dennis, our wonderful Crate and Barrel designer, had been in the night before. Everything looked lovely. All I had to do was re-stock the shelves before we opened. After greeting my colleagues, I went downstairs to gather up dolls, games, puzzles and baby toys. As I traveled up and down the stairs, I thought about the MAPP Training class that my husband and I had completed the night before. We were preparing to become foster parents and were required to complete this course before a child would be placed in our home. I wondered when that might be.

I checked to make sure staff was in place, opened the store, and headed down the stairs for some more toys. While filling my bags a colleague informed me that I had a phone call. I remember picking up the phone and hearing our social worker on the other end of the line. Since I had just seen her the night before, I thought perhaps she was following up about the course. Instead she said, “We have two beautiful little sisters. They are five months old and seventeen months old. Will you take them into your home?” Tears filled my eyes. I put the bags of art supplies on the basement floor and sat down in a chair. I asked for some additional information and told her I needed to call my husband. I made the phone call and called her back within five minutes to say, “Yes!”

“Great!” she said. “We’ll be at your house in an hour!” I told her I didn’t have high chairs, a crib, car seats, diapers or any other infant/toddler accoutrements. I asked her for two hours. Then I called my daughter’s school and told them I was on my over to pick her up. “She’s going to become a big sister in a couple of hours,” I remember saying.

That shopping experience with my twelve year old will remain etched in my mind forever. There we were, excited beyond belief, standing in the diaper section of the store. I was so delighted that there was a young mom standing there who recognized our bewilderment and helped us. She told my daughter, “Go get another cart!” and then proceeded to walk us around the store, helping us select the right items. We loaded everything into the car and drove home. As we opened our car doors, I turned to see the social workers driving into the driveway. My husband pulled in right behind them.

On May 11, 1999 I had no idea that my life was going to change dramatically. I didn’t know that these two beautiful little girls were going to be the most powerful teachers I ever had or that I would sell my stores to become a full time child advocate. All I understood was that they needed me. I dove in headfirst and learned how to best meet their needs along the way.

I am profoundly grateful to all of the amazingly generous and compassionate people I have met over the past thirteen years. They have enriched my journey and our lives beyond measure.

Today is May 11, 2012. I open the front door, take the dog out, and drink in the beauty of this gorgeous spring day. I smile at the fond memories, embrace my entire extended family, bow to lessons learned and those to come. I plan to spend the day celebrating life-long connections with my loved ones!

Anna’s Goodness & Grace

This morning we gathered at the Community Center to honor the life of Anna Kirwan, one of our beloved Treehouse community members. Anna died in her home last week, surrounded by her loving family. The announcement in the Hampshire Daily Gazette said, “Anna C. Kirwan, 63, of Easthampton, died early Easter Sunday, courageous and sweet to the end.”

I have met many wonderful people over the past decade in my tenure at Treehouse. Anna was one of my favorites. She had a vibrant and loving spirit and was a wordsmith extraordinaire. Our Writer in Residence, she inspired both the young and the young at heart while living at Treehouse.

A published author and poet, her resume was impressive. She published nine books for young readers, two poetry books, numerous short stories and an array of poems in anthologies and journals. She was a member of the Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and a charter member of the prestigious Amherst Writers & Artists, Inc., also serving on its board of directors.

No doubt about it, Anna was accomplished. She was also one of the most generous people I have ever met. Today, as we shared our appreciation for her goodness, intelligence, and willingness to help anyone who knocked at her door, I remembered an Anna Moment – one of the many delightful encounters that we shared over the past six years. It took place in 2006, shortly after she had moved across the street from seven children who she clearly adored.

A mother of three, Anna was truly comfortable with kids. There was always a group of youngsters helping Anna with her kittens, digging with her in the beautiful flower garden she planted just outside her front door or asking to borrow a book from her vast library (one of the young women who shared her memories today spoke about the double layer of books on Anna’s bookshelves).

On this particular day, I was walking to Anna’s house to return a book she had loaned me. An avid reader myself, I was drawn to the reading sanctuary she had created with her white couch, tall bookshelves, rocking chair, piano and favorite objects. I had to stop myself from pulling a book off the shelf, plopping down on the couch and passing the day reading – one of my favorite pastimes.

“Come in!”, Anna called when the doorbell rang. I opened the door on a magical scene. Anna was seated in her rocking chair – a family heirloom that her grandmother had rocked her father in when he was a baby. One of her young neighbors was on the couch across from her with a kitten lying across his stomach. She was reading to him from a large book lying on her lap. A feeling of peace was floating through the air. They were both lost in the story’s adventure. I felt privileged to witness this Anna Moment. It was such a gift – for the child who was being nurtured in such a safe and loving environment, for Anna whose goodness was deeply appreciated, and for me.

I was able to witness this kind and generous person who had chosen to move to Treehouse – a newly launched multigenerational neighborhood designed to support families adopting children from foster care – living the Treehouse mission and vision in the most loving way possible.

Murmuring my appreciation for the borrowed book, I placed it on the coffee table and quietly slipped out the door. The magic of that moment is something I will never forget. It was what child welfare professionals call “best practice”.

Many people at today’s Celebration of Life mentioned their appreciation of Anna’s “best practices”: as a writing teacher, friend, neighbor, role model, storyteller, wise elder and fellow traveler on this journey called Life. Anna created a sacred space for anyone who asked. We are blessed to have shared our lives with her
and to carry her forever in our hearts.

Investing In Foster Care Innovation

Sibling Connections Mentors & Guides

Over the past few months I have had the distinct pleasure of chatting with a group of veteran Camp To Belong MA campers – young people who have experienced our week long Sibling Connections summer program at some time over the past seven years.

I have met up with them at youth leadership gatherings, during sibling visits, at Treehouse, and around town. As we share our favorite memories of CTB MA, I find one common theme always emerges: In addition to seeing their sisters and brothers, the kids really appreciate that they have the opportunity to spend time with outstanding role models – our CTB MA volunteer counselors, ranging in age from 21 – 63, who introduce them to new life options as they begin to envision life after foster care.

Campers say they enjoy learning from young adults who are attending college, working, living on their own or with roommates. They like seeing older couples who model respectful relationships and healthy parenting. They feel grateful for the adult siblings come come to camp together and highlight different ways sisters and brothers stay connected. They love hearing from foster care alumni about things that worked for them as they emancipated from the child welfare system.

Being introduced to this vast array of life choices is something every youth I talk with thoroughly enjoys about the Camp To Belong MA experience. They also like the fact that they can spend additional quality time with Sibling Connections volunteer counselors if they choose to attend our year-round Sibling Saturday and Sibling Sunday programs.

Connecting with role models and mentors is truly important for our nation’s children and youth placed in foster care. As Camp To Belong founder, Lynn Price, a foster care alumna says, “One thing we know for sure. Our young people who are experiencing foster care today will grow up and leave the system.”

As someone who did just that, Lynn knows all too well that every year 25,000 young people “age out” of our state child welfare systems, typically between the ages of 18 – 22, and are sent out into the world without all the supports we take for granted: enduring family relationships, community connections, a home.

The result: they face homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, teen parenting, isolation and exploitation as they make their way into adulthood. Many times there is no one investing in their lives or their futures. No one is listening to their dreams or offering to help them find the necessary resources that will help them move forward in the best possible ways. Frequently they lack role models to show them how to make positive choices that will result in good outcomes. Sadly for many of our young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care, when they emancipate from foster care, no one is even making sure they have a hot meal.

• 65% emancipate from foster care without a place to live.

• 25% become homeless within the first two years

• 51% are unemployed

• 25% become incarcerated

• Less than 3% go to college

• Within 4 years, 60% have had children, and those children are twice as likely to be placed in foster care.

Due to these realities, I listen very closely when our CTB MA campers tell me what they find helpful. As one of the leaders of Sibling Connections, I also want to make sure that our programming is meeting the emerging needs of CTB MA campers.

Here are some of the stories I campers have shared:

One young woman said two of her CTB MA counselors became her foster parents and provided her with a secure home environment. Then they helped her successfully complete high school, find a job, set up a bank account, learn to drive and get her driver’s license. They also guided her through her college application process, helped her transition to college and remain in her life as role models and extended family members.

Another young woman told me that she thoroughly enjoys the time she spends with her sisters at CTB MA and will always treasure the memories she has of their time together. Equally important for her: to spend time with female counselors who are college students or college graduates; young adults who are out in the world following their dreams. She spoke of how critical it is for her to hear counselors speak about the road ahead. She likes asking them specific questions. She loves it when they offer to help her create her own roadmap forward. She said that her CTB MA counselors inspire her to dream and seek the resources she needs to achieve the life she envisions for herself.

A young man shared that he likes being with his siblings and at this time in his life, he finds it even more important to be in a sane and peaceful environment that is so different from the one he has grown up in. He appreciates being with an intergenerational group of counselors. He is especially grateful for the male role models at camp because he has never lived with his father. This youth has a concrete vision for his life and needs a bridge to help him transition to a new era. He talks with CTB MA counselors about college options and what he needs to do over the next few years so he can actually achieve his dreams.

Poverty is the root cause of foster care. One young man who understands this reality said that he was placed in foster care because his family has not been able to move out from under the shadow of poverty. He wants to break this cycle but is not sure how to do it. He knows he does not want to be the next generation of our nation’s homeless and poor. When he’s at CTB MA he feels energized by the team of hardworking counselors. They give him hope. They talk with him about the importance of a high school diploma. They offer to tutor him. He knows they will help.

A 14 year old said that she loves everything about CTB MA! It is the place where she feels like she is a regular kid just doing what typical siblings and families do. Those positive emotions fill her up so when she goes back to school feeling “different” and “less than” she can pull out her CTB MA photo album and re-live her time at camp. Her memories strengthen and sustain her.

The mission of Sibling Connections focuses on providing sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care with opportunities to come together to create joyous shared memories all year long.

The vision of Sibling Connections is that one day all sisters and brothers who are placed in foster care will be provided with year-round programs and events that allow them to spend time together engaged in developmentally appropriate activities with trained volunteer counselors from their communities who act as stellar role models and mentors.

Listening to campers and counselors who participate in our programs is a critical piece of our evaluation process. It is inspiring to see how many people who have entered the world of child welfare through Sibling Connections programming have gone on to become valuable resources to campers: social workers, foster parents, medical professionals, adoptive parents, educators, visiting resources, philanthropists, animal therapy providers, mental health professionals
and more!

These important conversations over the past 7 years have helped us develop our roadmap forward. Here’s to the next 7 years! May we all continue investing in widespread foster care innovation so that every child is rooted in family and a community that supports in their health and well-being.

Be Part of Something Special!

Snow is on the ground. Spring is in the air. The Treehouse Community Garden is a topic of conversation. People are walking their dogs, checking out new home construction and welcoming our wonderful new neighbors, who have just moved into their stunning new energy efficient home.

This is our sixth spring on Treehouse Circle. Since we opened in 2006, over 100 people, ranging in age from 3 – 93, have come together to invest in one another’s health and well-being.

The mission of the Treehouse Foundation is to inspire, implement and support innovative practices which ensure that children and youth placed in foster care find their places in loving, connected life-long family relationships and supportive communities that help them lead fulfilling and productive lives. The Treehouse Community does just that and we are interested in sharing the Treehouse Approach with others across the nation.

In 2003, we collaborated with Beacon Communities and Berkshire Children & Families, our stellar housing and child welfare partners, to build a multi-generational neighborhood where families who are adopting children from the public foster care system live with caring neighbors of all ages. We designed and built a Hub of Innovation; a learning community where we are finding out what it takes to help a youngster who has experienced foster care thrive and soar.

We started designing a compelling menu of engagement options to give Americans exciting new ways to become resources to children and youth; both those living on Treehouse Circle with their permanent families and those living throughout the region. We became a catalyst for collaborative social change. We planted seeds for the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative.

Treehouse has become a Hub of Innovation for Foster Care Adoption by forming innovation partnerships with colleges, universities, non-profits, businesses, educators, mental health providers, philanthropists, psychologists and child welfare professionals. We thoroughly enjoy collaborating with folks who think out-of-the foster care box. Visionaries who want to change the foster care narrative in this country. Citizens who want to make it possible for children and youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care to connect to people who will care for them and about them forever.

While all of this dynamic social change was afoot, we began to plan Phase Two of the Treehouse Community with our partners : Home Ownership. We wanted to invite more people to help us Re-Envision Foster Care in America and expand the Treehouse Community model to include both rental and home ownership opportunities.

Beacon Communities developed energy efficient home designs. They began building two, three and four bedroom homes that are designed to both reflect the historical vernacular of the Pioneer Valley as well as the environment. These ultra-low energy homes are designed to use 60% less energy than comparably sized new-construction homes. If an owner decides to incorporate solar electric panels on the roof, the homes are designed to perform at a “net-zero” energy usage, which means that on an annual basis, the energy created will be close to or exceed the energy needs.

Home ownership opportunities abound! Singles, couples, young families, seasoned families and folks who are downsizing have all expressed an interest in purchasing a home on Treehouse Circle. Prospective home buyers can choose from:
• 9 thoughtfully planned building sites

• 7 home designs

• 2, 3 & 4 bedroom designs ranging from 1,500 – 2,365 sq. ft

Come live the Treehouse mission and vision! Be part of something that is truly special. Help us make sure that every child is rooted in family and community.

Call Dave Ryan @ 413. 977. 9184 for home ownership information today!

Goodness in the Air

I woke up this morning with a huge smile on my face. I was dreaming of Camp To Belong MA. Looking at the calendar it dawned on me – in six months we will be in the Berkshires celebrating our 8th season of CTB MA. Campers and counselors will truly be jumping off the water trampoline, riding the banana boats, swimming, boating and playing volleyball down by the waterfront. I will be sitting in my green chair down on the dock with friends and family, drinking in all of the action, thinking “Life is Good!”

Camp To Belong MA is a wonderful summer program sponsored by Sibling Connections, the only non-profit organization in the Commonwealth that is dedicated to providing sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care with year-round events and opportunities to stay connected.

For the past eight summers we have invited siblings from across the state to join us for a week at camp. 50+ trained volunteer counselors join the kids and spend approximately 120 consecutive hours together creating joyous shared memories – memories that will last a lifetime.

When asked what they love best about CTB MA, campers typically say, “Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with my sisters and brothers.”, “Spending the whole day with my sister/brother!”, “Riding horses with my siblings!” “Getting to be with my family for a whole week!” “All of the memories in my Camp To Belong MA scrapbook!”

During the week, boys sleep in cabins on one side of camp, girls on the other. In the morning they wake up, get dressed and saunter over to the Dining Hall with their counselors to join their Family Group. Each Family Group is composed of 2-3 sibling groups and a cadre of counselors. Together they move through the day, sampling the day’s offerings, guided by the counselors’ talent, energy, expertise and wisdom.

Counselors range in age from 21 – 63 and come from all walks of life: accounting, child welfare, education, health care, journalism, mental health. We have doctors, lawyers, nurses and award winning photojournalists. Foster care alumni and foster/adoptive parents. It’s a diverse and dedicated group of caring community members, eager to do what’s right for our children and youth who have been placed in foster care. As campers swim, ride horses, bake, make each other sibling pillows, play basketball, scale the climbing wall and fly through the air on a flying trapeze, their counselors are by their side.

When asked what they like best about volunteering at Camp To Belong MA, counselors often say they love giving the kids the opportunity to be together and celebrate their sibling relationship. They enjoy being part of an organization that is doing the right thing for siblings experiencing foster care. They can’t imagine being separated from their own sisters and brothers and want to do everything they can to support the development of healthy life-long connections for their campers.

The majority of CTB MA counselors are veterans who come back year after year. Those who live in Massachusetts often volunteer to support the year-round sibling connection initiative sponsored by Sibling Connections. One veteran counselor, an outstanding social worker who lives and works in Connecticut, volunteers her time and talent year-round. She has this to say about her camp memories: “ As brothers and sisters join a group of volunteers at the start of each season of CTB MA, I experience a wave of emotions. When the first sibling gets off of the bus, I know for the next five days I will be a part of something greater than myself. When I see the first sibling group give their hugs to one another, I know that I will be inspired with each moment that passes. When I see the last camp fire of the season come to a close, I know that I have been privileged to be a member of the Camp To Belong family.”

I agree. Looking back over the past 7 years of Camp To Belong MA, the salient take-away for me is the feeling of goodness that permeates the air. The kids are able to look around and know that everyone understands their life circumstances. They are respected, valued, cared about, honored and supported by a community of wonderful people who repeatedly send them the messages:
“You are worthy!”
“We care about you!”
“We love spending time with you!”
“You deserve goodness and opportunity!”

As we set out to raise $100,000 for our 8th season of Camp To Belong MA, we thank the generous individuals, philanthropists and foundations who find CTB MA worthy of their financial support. Without you and our outstanding cadre of volunteers this program would not be possible.

Thank you for investing in the lives of children and youth placed in foster care. Thank you for investing in stellar programming. Thank you for investing in foster care innovation.

Save the date!

Happy New Year!

Changing Life Trajectories

The other day my Treehouse colleagues and I met to identify the best ways to support a group of young people living on Treehouse Circle. They will all be graduating from high school over the next four years and we want to help them achieve their life goals. So we made a list of the kids and their aspirations. Then we sat back and reflected on the life trajectories of this amazing group of young men and women.

One young man, who is currently editing his college admissions essay, is searching for a college or university that will help him focus on Environmental Science and Theatre. His sister is looking at colleges that will lead her into the fields of Social Work and Education. Their neighbor is applying to Culinary Schools so she can be a chef on a cruise ship. One of her big sisters plans to be a Physical Therapist. Another is taking the necessary courses that will lead her to a career as a clothing designer.

Our young people at Treehouse are wonderful examples of how children who have experienced foster care can flourish when we help them find their places in loving, connected families and supportive communities.

Unfortunately, this group of Treehouse teenagers is the exception. The outlook for most kids who have been in foster care isn’t as optimistic.

There are nearly 500,000 children in foster care in the U.S. Each year, 25,000 of these kids “age out” of state child welfare systems and are sent out into the world without all the supports we take for granted: enduring family relationships, community connections, a home.

The result: they face homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, teen parenting, isolation and exploitation as they make their way into adulthood. There is no one investing in their lives or their futures. No adults are listening to their dreams, offering to mentor them, or connect them to the right people and resources to guide them. No one is giving them feedback on their college admissions essays, taking them to visit schools, or even making sure they have a hot meal.

• 65% emancipate from foster care without a place to live.
• 25% become homeless within the first two years
• 51% are unemployed
• 25% become incarcerated
• Less than 3% go to college
• Within 4 years, 60% have had children, and those children are twice as likely to be placed in foster care.

It’s time to come together to create new realities and life outcomes. For our children, future generations and our nation.

The Treehouse Foundation is leading the way forward. We are collaborating with an energetic, committed group of individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations, child welfare organizations, educators, mental health professionals, colleges, universities, and visionary funders to Re-Envision Foster Care in America.

Please join us! To find out how you can offer your expertise, time and financial resources, go to www.treehousecommunities.org.

Transformation is a Beautiful Thing

Thanks to the generosity of a visionary philanthropist, one year ago today the Treehouse Foundation joined forces with Friends of Children and the Rudd Center for Adoption Research at UMass Amherst to host the first Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Conference in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Here’s why we are coming together to create a culture of possibility for our nation’s children and youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care:

Today in America more than 500,000 girls and boys are being raised by the state. They will spend their childhoods moving from foster home to foster home. Some will end up in residential settings. Some will be placed in Group Homes. Children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care are often traumatized, stigmatized and 75% are more likely to wind up homeless, unemployed, incarcerated and living in poverty as adults.

How do we, as a country, help children who have been placed in our public foster care system flourish ??!

The Treehouse Foundation is collaborating with stakeholders from all walks of life to break this cycle of despair and failure. We are working diligently with individuals, organizations, colleges, universities, businesses and philanthropists to create real solutions.

The Treehouse Foundation believes that children are children first – their placement in foster care does not define them. Providing every child with a strong family and a caring community that is dedicated to his or her health and well-being is the answer. Since 2002, Treehouse has collaborated with regional and national partners to:

• Build a multigenerational neighborhood where families adopting children from foster care live with engaged neighbors of all ages who invest in one another’s lives daily.

• Develop a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so that Americans have a wide array of choices for how to become a resource to a child or youth in their backyard.

• Launch a Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative to ensure that every child is rooted in family and community.

Treehouse is dedicated to developing sustainable program models that can be replicated across the country with one goal in mind: to prevent 25,000 young Americans from “aging out” of foster care alone annually.

Please join us and share our passion for improving the lives of children and youth placed in foster care. There are many ways to get involved through financial support, volunteering and lending your expertise. We need your help to spread the word. To learn more about the Treehouse Foundation, to stay connected or to contribute, please visit us at:

www.treehousecommunities.org

National Adoption Month

The Value of the Suitcase Project

Today I received a note of appreciation from a social worker who has witnessed the power of the Suitcase Project firsthand. Groupon also understands it’s value. When I approached Groupon for their support they responded by creating the upcoming three day Suitcase Project Campaign for Groupon Boston and Worcester. Please help us make the most of this incredible opportunity. Honor children and youth placed in foster care on September 27, 28 & 29 by sharing this blog post and the Suitcase Project flyer with everyone you know. Then make a contribution! Read on to find out why your participation is so important:

“At our DCF office, I have never seen a child enter foster care carrying their belongings in anything other than a plastic trash or grocery bag. Not only are the children entering foster care losing touch with their families, school chums and neighborhood pals, they are also carrying their personal items in a way that most people view as “trash”. However, what is inside that bag means the world to the child. In that “trash bag” are the few things they were able to take from the only home they have ever known.

Our Office of DCF currently has nearly 400 children in foster care. On any given day we have had as few as one child enter foster care to as many as 15. Our children in foster care range in age from newborns to 22 year olds finishing up college and / or technical schools.

Over the past year The Suitcase Project has provided an amazing number of beautiful new suitcases, duffle bags and backpacks to our children entering foster care as well as those, who for a variety of reasons, must relocate to a different foster home.

The children, as they receive their beautiful new suitcases, are truly in awe. The same can be said for their social workers. I have seen children jump up and down with glee. I have seen tears of happiness. I have seen looks of disbelief that someone has given them something so wonderful to hold their possessions in.”

Heading West

I remember that summer five years ago when I climbed up into the truck and turned on the ignition. “Remember not to go to any drive thru windows!” the man at the rental counter shouted. I nodded, both hands gripping the steering wheel of the 24 foot UHaul truck I had just rented. Holding my breath, I slowly navigated the UHaul past parked cars and made my way onto the busy four lane road. Once on the road I exhaled. My hands were placed at 10 and 2 for optimal steering control. I had been driving for almost 40 years. This was my first experience with a 24 foot UHaul truck.

I headed east to Beaver Summer Programs in Chestnut Hill, MA. to pick up the program supplies that Beaver Summer Program campers, their families and staff had generously donated to each CTB MA camper: brand new sleeping bags, pillows, pillow cases, duffle bags, flash lights, batteries, beach towels, journals, pens, gift cards and more. The BSP staff and I loaded everything onto the truck and I made my way to the Berkshires.

At this point, the truck rental and journey to BSP is a beloved ritual. This year I handed the supply truck baton off to Leslie Hopper, a wonderful CTB MA volunteer. The truck is now sitting fully loaded in her driveway, ready to head west.

We love our partnership with Beaver Summer Programs! It’s the best kind of collaboration. BSP Director, Nat Saltonstall and his staff are educating campers of all ages about some of the challenges that their peers experiencing foster care face. The result: the campers and their families take action. They become engaged in a community service project that directly supports sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in our child welfare system. Most of the BSP campers have siblings. They can’t imagine not living with them. A summer program like Camp To Belong MA that brings sisters and brothers together makes a lot of sense.

This year we are celebrating our 7th season of Camp To Belong MA. 100 sisters and brothers who were separated when placed in foster care have been invited to spend the week at a beautiful overnight camp in the Berkshires to create joyous shared memories. Over fifty volunteer counselors, ranging in age from 21 – 65, will spend the week with the kids who come from every region of the state. Together they will experience riding horses and banana boats, flying through the air on a trapeze and scaling a 40 foot climbing wall. They will also spend time singing, painting, making pottery, swimming, dancing and making scrapbooks. Most of all, they will enjoy spending time together.

Sibling Connections is the non-profit organization that hosts Camp To Belong MA. Sibling Connections also offers year-round sibling connection programming through a monthly program called Sibling Sundays. Currently Sibling Sundays serves sisters and brothers ages 8 – 20 in western Massachusetts, Greater Lowell and southeastern Massachusetts. Please consider becoming a Sibling Connections partner and directly supporting kids in care like Beaver Summer Programs. You’ll be glad you did!

Treehouse Tea

On the second Wednesday of every month Treehouse has a tea party. It’s a tradition that started in the summer of 2006 when the first families and elders moved onto Treehouse Circle. This week we’re celebrating our 60th Treehouse Tea.

I love Tea at Treehouse. As the hostess I enjoy shopping at my favorite stores to make sure we have a wide array of tasty sweets and savories for everyone to enjoy. The idea is to treat people to great food and a wonderful experience. To thank folks for choosing to be a part of Treehouse. Community members, board members, partners, friends, neighbors and Treehouse supporters from all over the country come to Treehouse Teas. Depending on the season, one is encouraged to brew a pot of their favorite tea or help themselves to one of the festive iced drinks in our punch bowls. Today’s tea will feature cold drinks unless it rains!

We have an eclectic collection of tea pots in the Treehouse kitchen. Over the past five years the options have grown. We now have several kinds of flowered tea pots, Santa tea pots and red snowman tea pots in our cupboards. Santa only comes out in December. The snowmen appear on tables in the throes of winter. Our tea cups come from Ikea because they are affordable and just the right size. The first set was a pretty deep pumpkin color. We chose spring green for our second set. They look great arranged in a circle on a black tray.

Email invitations are sent out to folks a few days before the actual event. Then the calls start coming in with requests and gentle reminders: that Alden Merrill chocolate cake, the apple bread from Ward’s Berry Farm, that special cheese with the cranberries in it, the cherry tomatoes from Atkins Farm or the Iggy’s bread to go with the spinach salad. We all have our seasonal favorites, especially the kids.

During the school year when the children come home from school on Tea Day, they stop by the kitchen to see what I’m preparing. They assure me they’ll head home to check in and be right back. By the time they return there’s a group of community members already seated at the tables in the Community Room engaged in conversation with their friends and neighbors. Tea has officially begun.

After everyone has a plate full of food and their drink of choice, I grab a plate and sit down wherever there’s an empty chair. It’s time to lean back and savor the moment. People of all ages are chatting in English and sign language. Laughter floats through the air.
Someone sits down at the piano and plays a few songs. Our beautiful young resident singer/songwriter picks up her guitar and serenades us. I look around and think, “It doesn’t get any better than this… People are breaking bread, sharing lives and supporting each other’s health and well-being.”

There is so much that I am grateful for at Treehouse. Sitting in my chair I give thanks for the past five years and all of the people who have made it possible. I also offer up a prayer of appreciation for all sixty Teas we have shared together. They have provided me with many opportunities to weave joy into the fabric of our daily lives, reflect on what we have all accomplished and focus on where we want to go.

The Red Dress

We have a ritual at our house. Every season we go upstairs and pull out bins of clothing that my youngest daughter has outgrown. We select dresses, skirts, pajamas, pants and shirts that we think her two youngest sisters would like and place them in the Share Box. We’ve been passing clothes back and forth among my daughter’s four sisters for the past decade. It’s something we thoroughly enjoy.

Last week we pulled out the boxes, labeled according to sizes, and began to make two piles: one for a 5 year old and one for a ten year old. We shared fond memories as we pulled out each article of clothing. “I remember those pajamas!”, my daughter said. “I wore them with my red robe.” “I LOVE that outfit! You wore it with a little flowered hat. You looked so cute!”, I commented when she held up an embroidered skirt and flowered top.

There was a blue bin in the back of the closet that we hadn’t looked inside for a long time. My daughter took the top off and held up little articles of clothing, including her first pair of riding pants. She couldn’t believe that she had ever been small enough to fit into them.

Then she held up a beautiful little red velvet dress with long sleeves and a scalloped hem. The velvet was soft to the touch and had a flower pattern on it. “Do you remember that red velvet dress?” I asked quietly. She shook her head.

We sat down on the bed. I began the story of the red dress. When the girls were younger and had a difficult time parting, I recalled wearing my mother’s nightgown to bed for a few months after she died. It helped me feel close to her. I wondered if that approach might help my daughter with her loss. I asked her big sister’s adoptive mother if they would be willing to share a favorite article of clothing with my daughter so she could hold her sister close between our weekly visits.

The following week they presented her with a beautiful gift bag containing the red velvet dress. We explained it’s purpose. She took the dress out of the gift bag, held the soft fabric up to her cheek and put it right on. Then she hugged her sister and twirled around the room with a huge grin on her face.

For the next four months my daughter wore the red dress every day. She took it off at night when she went to bed so we could take it downstairs and toss it in the washer. In the morning she popped it back on and moved through the day with her sister literally by her side. Some children are given medication to deal with the losses they face when they are placed in foster care. The red dress was my daughter’s medication. It sustained her and supported her health and well-being. When she walked into their weekly sibling play dates wearing the dress, her big sister would look up and smile.

I remember reading her school progress report one day during the era of the red dress. The young teacher who wrote the report clearly did not fully understand the therapeutic value of this article of clothing. She wrote that my daughter wore the same dress to school every day as if it was a negative thing. I quietly took her aside, reminded her why my daughter was wearing the dress and requested that she re-write the school report. Wearing the red velvet dress was a strength to be valued.

Looking at the pretty little red dress today you would never know it has played such an important role in helping my daughter regain her sense of well-being. You would also never know that it had seen such active duty. It’s in such good condition that we could pass it on to my daughter’s youngest sister. But we decided to wrap it up, place it in a colorful gift bag and pass it back to her big sister with a Thank You note. We’ll do it tomorrow when the girls meet up at the barn where they are spending their summer days. It’s their favorite place. We make sure to meet up frequently. Two loving families, raising two sisters. Together.

A Typical Day



A Typical Day at Camp To Belong MA

People often ask what a typical day at Camp To Belong MA looks like.
Every day is different. Each one has it’s own unique schedule so that campers
can move through the day sampling the wide array of of activities: swimming, boating, horse back riding, trying out the circus trapeze, scaling the rock climbing wall, making sibling pillows, scrap booking, creating pottery and other fun day time offerings.

I love to wake up early, get dressed and head over to the Storage Cabin while folks are still sleeping. My job is to set up activities. The Storage Cabin is full of camp supplies and the wonderful donations that Beaver Summer Programs has collected for us. The sun looks so beautiful coming up over the lake. Sisters sleep on one side of camp, brothers on another. I make my way across camp as campers are waking up. I can hear them whispering, “Good Morning!”, getting dressed for the day, heading to the bathroom, toothbrush in hand.

When everyone is dressed, counselors walk with their kids over to the Meeting Area where our youth leader is waiting to help us all embrace the day. My favorite morning tradition involves music. The sounds of Cupid Shuffle float through the air. People of all ages begin to shuffle their way toward the Dining Hall. By the time I arrive everyone is dancing with big smiles on their faces.

Sisters and brothers come together in Family Groups at breakfast. They join up with their Family Group counselors and move through the day as a small group, giving siblings who live in separate homes the opportunity to spend the entire day together creating joyous shared memories.

After breakfast, Family Groups head out to go horseback riding, swim in the lake, check out the water trampoline, test the banana boats, climb the 40 foot climbing wall and play games. We all gather again for lunch in the Dining Hall before launching into afternoon activities. Every day kids tell me how much it means to them to sit at a table and share meals with their sisters and brothers. They say they feel just like their peers who have not been removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

Each night after dinner we put on a different event. Over the years we’ve hosted camp fires, carnivals, camp-wide birthday parties, talent shows, trips to the local ice cream stand, basketball games, comedy shows, waterskiing demonstrations and more. One year the rapper DMC came and sang for us. He spoke to the campers about his life and what it was like for him to learn he had been adopted from foster care.

Some nights we watch our version of home movies – my husband, Arthur Pollock, takes beautiful photos of siblings, counselors and camp activities. He spends time at night putting together a collage of the day, adds some fun music and shares his creations with us. That is another one of my favorite CTB MA traditions. Everyone gathered together, feeling connected, honoring one another in the best possible ways. I stand at the back of the room and drink in the goodness that surrounds us. It is a moment we all savor and delight in.

Closing Camp Fire takes place on our last night of Camp To Belong MA. It is a time when campers, counselors and support staff express appreciation for the time we have spent together. It is a very moving experience to sit around a camp fire honoring the lives of children who have been removed from their families and placed in the public foster care system. Every heart is touched. Every soul awakened. Our lives are changed for the better!

On the Road Again

The first time I saw the new VW Bug I laughed out loud. I had to have one. It looked just like a shiny new toy car moving down the road. It was love at first sight. What a great car for a toy store owner to drive around town!

As soon as I got home I called my favorite graphic designer, Leah Bird. I had been working with her at a children’s game company. Her unique style inspires me. She arranges colorful fonts, words, and images in whimsical ways that make people smile. Plus, she’s wonderful to work with – smart, funny and professional. I knew she was the person we needed to design our VW Bug.

She was delighted to be on the project. I wanted a yellow Bug. Actually, I would have taken a whole fleet, one in each color, but the size of our budget dictated purchasing one. Leah got the exterior dimensions of the car and started designing the decals. My business partner and I began visiting VW dealers.

Imagine our surprise when we couldn’t find a yellow Bug anywhere in Massachusetts. There were none in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont or Connecticut either. We put my husband, an experienced journalist, on the job. He found the last remaining yellow Bug in northern Maine. We bought it!

My daughter Jenna was finishing up the summer season at Camp Runoia in the Belgrade Lakes. We scooped her up, drove north, picked up the Bug and began our trip south to Massachusetts. I’ll never forget how happy we were. It was the perfect mother-daughter road trip. There we were heading down the highway singing along with the radio and waving at people who honked their horns at us. My husband, who was following us, said that the little yellow car radiated happiness all the way from Maine to Massachusetts.

Once home we took the car to the shop where it was wrapped in Leah’s playful design. Three colorful words, PLAY, LAUGH and GIGGLE, were draped across the hood, trunk and roof of the car. No Kidding! A Toy Store decorated both doors. Our two store locations were visible on the back bumper. We whooped and hollered when we saw it for the first time!

Taking it out for a spin was always a joyous occasion. People of all ages smiled. Kids would point and shout.
We heard a lot of people exclaim, “Look!” Everyone waved. This whimsical little car was the talk of the town. It was fun to drive in town parades. I loved driving kids to school in it. Whenever I was behind the wheel we took the long way. Then I drove around town before opening the store.

When we sold the stores to launch Treehouse, the decals had to come off the car. I remember standing behind our Brookline store with my son just before the removal happened. “Mom, this is one of the best things you have ever done,” he said. I smiled and wondered how I could take this magic and weave it into my work on behalf of children experiencing foster care.

Twelve years later I figured out a way: Create a Leah Bird designed vehicle wrapped up words and images that inspire people to Re-Envisioning Foster Care! I told my family on Mother’s Day, as we were driving to one of our favorite farms where our youngest daughter is learning how to drive a horse carriage. They loved the idea! We began a lively brainstorming session. What kind of vehicle? Which ones were the right size and offered optimal visibility? Which cars were the most fuel efficient? Which ones were the most fun? Were there any Richard Scary type vans or trucks that would do the job? We’re still pondering the possibilities.

We will need a generous philanthropist or someone affiliated with a car dealership to donate the vehicle or provide us with a free lease. I’ve heard that there are generous folks who support non-profits with free vehicle leases…

In the meantime, I’ve reached out to Leah. She’s busy dreaming. Every time I hop in my car and get on the road I imagine driving our vibrant Re-Envisioning Foster Care! vehicle with a big grin on my face. I can’t wait to inspire people to support children experiencing foster care in this exciting new way. Stay tuned! I’ll write a blog post when we’re ready to hit the road.

We Really Are Re-Envisioning Foster Care!

May is National Foster Care Month and our family is kicking it off in style. We will spend the day with a great group of kids and volunteer counselors from Sibling Connections. Our destination: A cool rock climbing gym where we can all create some joyous shared memories. We are Re-Envisioning Foster Care. Please join us!

I began Re-Envisioning Foster Care in 1999. The journey started on the day my 12 year old daughter and I stood in our driveway waiting for a social worker’s car to appear. That morning I had received a call asking if we would open our home to two little sisters. Our family said, “YES!” and I immediately left work, picked my daughter up from school and drove to the store to buy infant and toddler high chairs, car seats, cribs, diapers, and basic clothing.

My husband and I had just finished our foster parent training and were now certified to welcome children into our home. We had decided to sign up to become a foster family after reading a newspaper story about a five month old baby who had been kidnapped from his crib while taking a nap in his foster home.

My daughter grabbed my hand as the car approached, excited to meet the two little sisters. The social workers introduced us to the girls. A sweet five month old baby was placed in my outstretched arms. My daughter was introduced to a 17 month old toddler with gorgeous brown eyes. She helped her out of the car seat and took her hand.

These two beautiful little sisters led me into the world of child welfare and taught me the value of investing in the lives of all 500,000 children who experience foster care in this country. They showed me what our nation’s child welfare system looks like. They inspired me to Re-envision Foster Care in America.

The girls were exceptional teachers. As a result of the lessons learned while parenting them, I sold my businesses and became a full time child advocate. It became obvious to me that most Americans think there are only two ways to support children in foster care: Adopt them or become a foster parent. That is too much to ask of most people. The result: Hundreds of thousands of potential resources turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most.

What is needed? A corps of community members in every region of the country who invest in the well-being of children in their backyards; folks who actively engage in creating a caring safety net for the infants, toddlers, school aged youngsters and teens whose lives have been impacted by foster care.

Every year 25,000 young Americans “age out” of our foster care system at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen parenting and lives of poverty. We can change this reality by coming together in regions all across the country to build roadmaps that take us in a new direction – one that encourages widespread investment and improves life outcomes.

For the past twelve years I have begun to craft that roadmap by beginning to create a compelling menu of new engagement options so that people of all ages can easily support children in their communities. With the generous help of many caring individuals I have created three non-profit organizations:

• The Treehouse Foundation, a multi-generational community where families who are adopting children from the public foster care system live in a neighborhood were folks of all ages are investing in one another’s lives.

• Sibling Connections, a year-round sibling connection initiative that offers summer camp and monthly programming designed to keep sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care connected all year long.

• Birdsong Farm, a year-round learning community designed to enhance the educational outcomes for students whose lives have been impacted by foster care.

Each is dedicated to ensuring that every child is rooted in family and community. To that end, we have launched a national Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative in Massachusetts. Once we get our regional road map and implementation plan all figured out we’ll be ready to share the learning with folks everywhere!

This May as we celebrate National Foster Care Month, may we come together to wish all our children and youth in foster care health and well-being. May we wish them loving family and community connections. While we’re at it, let’s also redouble our efforts to make sure all our children are walking together on a level playing field. Let’s give children experiencing foster care thousands of strong shoulders to stand on. Let’s rise above the world they’ve inherited and create a better one. Let’s give them the life they deserve!

May is National Foster Care Month!

Thanks Dad!

This morning on our way to the barn there was an accident. Two cars smashed by the side of the road. By the time we reached the accident scene the ambulance had already left for the hospital. One of the cars was being loaded on a flatbed truck. A group of police officers was standing in a circle next to the other car talking. My daughter and I softly murmur, “I wish you well.”

While we are waiting in traffic a childhood memory floats into my consciousness. I am six or seven years old, sitting in the back seat of our Buick with my sister and aunt. My mom and dad are up front. Dad is driving. We are headed for Disneyland. This is our second trip since the Grand Opening. We drove down for that event when I was five. I remember walking across the huge parking lot, holding my mom’s hand. I can still recall the monorail, the sun on my new shoes and the dress I wore for the occasion.

This time my mother’s sister decided to join us for the trip. Our plan is to drive from the Bay Area to Fresno and then stop for the night. My sister and I are thrilled. This means we get to stop at our favorite motel. It has a pool and we can swim until it gets dark. In the morning we can order waffles with strawberries and whipped cream for breakfast. That is a real treat for us. Something we are never allowed to indulge in at home..

It’s late afternoon. We are somewhere near Fresno. The sun is starting to sink in the sky. All of a sudden my dad pulls the car over on the side of the road. He opens the door, jumps out, and runs across an open field. My mom says, “Look!” and points to the train tracks. Flames are shooting up out of one of the train cars.

My dad was the Fire Science Coordinator for northern California. As a kid when I would ask him what that meant, he would say, “That means I train fire fighters to be fire fighters.” He loved his job. He traveled throughout the northern counties teaching classes. Before my sister and I were born, my mom would travel with him. When I became a teacher he shared his favorite teaching strategies with me. He was a real proponent of experiential learning. So am I.

As I watch my dad sprint toward the burning train I feel so proud. He is focused on helping put out a fire and saving lives. He is doing the right thing. I might be six or seven but I know that he is acting like a hero.

We sit in the car watching the action for a couple of hours. I can see fire trucks, ambulances and lots
of people moving about. When it’s all over I see my dad walking back across the field. He is covered from head to foot with black soot. He’s moving in a way that lets me know he is in a thoughtful space. It’s the same way he walked up to our front door on the day he learned that his father had died. He slowly opens the car door and sits down.

His shirt is ripped and dirty. His head is covered with black marks. He answers our questions, lets us know that everything is OK, and points out the fire chief. The fire trucks pull away. He turns his attention to the road with a look of satisfaction on his face. I reach for my aunt’s hand, look out the window, and drink it all in. The world seems like a better place. Why? Because my dad has just done the right thing. He pulled our car over, ran across a field toward a burning train, and pitched in. I want to be just like him when I grow up.