When I first became a foster parent I was focused on supporting a few children in my home. After meeting hundreds of young people who had been placed in foster care I began asking myself, “What does it mean for us as a country when 25,000 young Americans leave the foster care system at the age of 18 every year without a place to live, a job, the consistent support of a caring adult or a high school diploma?” You know, you just can’t ask yourself that question and then walk away…
I began looking for solutions. When I couldn’t find them I started envisioning them. As a teacher I’m interested in a variety of approaches and options – a menu of exciting new community-based programs that address the needs of our most vulnerable young people appeals to me: the need for a stable and loving family, life-long family connections, healthy relationships, a good education, to be productive citizens, and experience a life well-lived. I want to invite people in to be part of the solution. I know from being a foster parent that our state agencies need folks to help out. Their mandate is child safety. I think we all know that the kids need us to chip in. So I like to consider how citizen-led change can enhance the child welfare landscape.
Ten years ago I envisioned an intergenerational community where families adopting children from foster care live with elders in a vibrant neighborhood setting. I named it Treehouse and, thanks to the generosity and expertise of a myriad of Treehouse funders and partners, we opened our first Treehouse Community in June 2006. Since then Treehouse has been home to over 100 people, ranging in age from 4 – 90, who are building caring relationships across the generations. It’s a very inspiring place.
A short time after I found the land for Treehouse I got a call from my daughter’s pre-school teacher letting me know that she had a raging fever. I raced over to school and picked her up. When we got home she fell asleep in my lap. Not wanting to disturb her, I turned on the TV and watched Oprah. That day Camp To Belong founder, Lynn Price, received one of Oprah’s Use Your Life Awards. Lynn, a former youth in foster care, created a great camp where sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care come together for a week to create joyous shared memories.
Before I became a full time child advocate for children who experience foster care I was a teacher, a mom, and the owner of two specialty toy stores. I care about the well-being of children and families in my community. Keeping our daughter connected to her five siblings is a top priority. As I watched Oprah hand Lynn Price a check for $50,000.00 on national television, I realized that what we do for our daughter needs to be offered to siblings nationwide.
I called Lynn up and asked her if I could bring Camp To Belong to sisters and brothers in Massachusetts. She said, “Yes!” and we launched Camp To Belong MA in 2005. As the campers were getting on the bus to head home after that first season I started planning a year-round sibling connection initiative in order to make sure kids have the opportunity to create the kind of sibling bonds that would last a lifetime.
In the fall of 2005 I started a pilot program called Sibling Sunday and invited a group of sisters and brothers who had attended camp to join our CTB MA Program Director and a group of volunteer CTB MA counselors on the first Sunday of every month. Thanks to an innovative non-profit called Sibling Connections, Sibling Sunday programs are now offered monthly in both eastern and western MA.
These days I’m working hard with the Treehouse and Sibling Connections Teams to evaluate and sustain what we have begun. I’m also visualizing Birdsong Farm Education Center, a year-round learning community where students whose lives have been impacted by foster care are valued learners. Birdsong Farm is a place where kids with foster care histories belong. It’s an educational village where the focus is on thriving – a learning environment where kids who may struggle in conventional school settings are surrounded by a cadre of trauma informed teachers who might be farmers, gardeners, equestrians, dog trainers, outdoor educators, volunteers or social workers.
Birdsong Farm’s year-round programs will be offered in safe, hands-on learning environments that encourage students to explore, discover and develop an array of skills that support successful school, life and work experiences. I am inspired by Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York and enjoy talking with Green Chimneys founder, Dr. Sam Ross about his 61 year journey. Currently I am looking for land. I can’t wait to begin collaborating with another outstanding team of funders, partners and staff. My favorite thing in the world is creating powerful partnerships with leading edge thinkers and philanthropists.
Here’s to a year of fantastic partnerships. To generous philanthropists. To forward movement. Here’s to growth and development for the Treehouse Community, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm. May we all come together to do the right thing for kids in our own backyards. May we believe that our mission is possible.