Stonyfield Farm began with seven cows in a leaky barn. Now it’s the world’s leading organic yogurt. I sit with a cup of Stonyfield every morning and dream of having my own farm. A farm that offers something for kids whose lives have been impacted by foster care – a dynamic and supportive place to come and learn in nature’s finest classrooms as well as in barns, riding rings, organic gardens, farm stands, harvest kitchens and open air farmer’s markets. Birdsong Farm is designed to be a year-round education center. It will offer programs both on and off the farm. Some of its finest teachers will be animals and plants.
I have always been drawn to farms. My grandparents were farmers. My mom grew up on a ranch in northern California. One of my earliest childhood memories is of me riding with my mom, sitting snug in the saddle with her arms wrapped around me as we traveled on horseback around my uncle’s ranch. My sister and I talk about what it means to return to our family roots as this stage of our lives. This time our family will be farming with a mission to restore the health and well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable children.
As a country we need to look at where kids who age out of foster care typically end up. Then we need to dedicate ourselves to creating a new set of statistics. Instead of outcomes that include homeless shelters, mental health facilities, prisons and unemployment lines, let’s envision young adults who are productive citizens, engaged in family and community life. Let’s move children out of foster care and into life long families and surround them with caring neighbors who invest in their lives (the Treehouse Community model). Let’s make sure they are connected to their sisters and brothers (the Sibling Connections model). Let’s improve their educational experiences.
Educational outcomes for children who experience foster care in this country are dismal. This is primarily due to the trauma of being removed from their homes and families, trying to deal with the loss and grief associated with that removal and/or the neglect and abuse they may have suffered. In addition, they have to make friends with two very stressful realities that come with being in the public foster care system: multiple moves to new foster homes and frequently being placed in new school settings. Such complex life situations often make succeeding in a typical school setting extremely difficult.
It’s time to respect the social, emotional and educational needs of 800,000 young Americans. It’s time to invest in innovative year-round approaches that are full of positive learning experiences designed to build core competencies and solid community connections. It’s time to thoughtfully design interactive educational programs that build confidence and skills so that kids will stay in school and avoid aging out of the foster care system without a place to live, a job, the consistent support of a caring adult or a high school diploma. We all know the outcomes for young people who drop out of school. We need to invest in new pilot models like Birdsong Farm to help our kids spiral up and out of school – away from a life of poverty.
My daughter and I lie in bed at night talking about Birdsong Farm. She draws pictures of the Birdsong Farm horse barn and the riding ring where trusting relationships will be developed between kids and their horses while they groom, ride and spend time with friends and teachers. Those experiences will be woven into math, science, language arts and social studies curriculum. She paints pictures of horses to put up in the Barn office. Pictures that will be hung alongside her poetry, stories and photos of favorite horse friends – Chloe, Dutchess, Ilando, Passion and Buttercup.
While my daughter envisions her life on a farm, I read information about raising chickens and goats, East Coast Assistance Dogs, organic gardening practices, innovation in education, and Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York. Dr. Sam Ross, founder of Green Chimneys inspired me when I was a young teacher. He continues to energize me today as we converse about the best practices Green Chimneys has developed over the past 61 years while serving vulnerable students in New York. Their animal-assisted programs are outstanding. I am profoundly grateful for his honestly and sage advice. While we talk I look for land and talk to philanthropists and potential partners about what is needed to develop, launch, evaluate and sustain the Birdsong Farm model. My experiences with the Treehouse and Sibling Connections Teams have helped guide me in this process. I am eager to add another new choice to the Menu of Engagement Options, one that helps better serve the educational needs of our kids experiencing foster care. With hope and enthusiasm the Birdsong Farm Team will work to bring Birdsong Farm a reality. Please join us!