11 years ago this month I became a foster parent and entered the world of child welfare with a 5 month old on one hip and a 17 month old on the other. Two little sisters who had been removed from their home and placed in the public foster care system. To say it was a life changing moment is an understatement. It was a catalyst that completely changed my life and shifted my attention from a world where children are surrounded by caring people who offer them an array of life opportunities every day of their lives to a world where children are barely noticed and rarely invested in.
In 2001 I sold my businesses and began living my life differently. Outwardly I was a parent by birth, a foster mom, a former teacher and a businesswoman. Inwardly I experienced a life transformation that led me to become a full time child advocate and social entrepreneur.
Two realities shaped my journey. The first is this statistic: Every year as many as 25, 000 young people “age out” of foster care at the age of 18 without enduring family relationships or community connections. Suddenly, after a childhood spent in a system that has made every important life decision for them, they are on their own with no support system. The result: Every year these 25,000 youths are at risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and becoming teen parents.
The second reality that guided my actions is that most Americans think there are only two ways they can support a child experiencing foster care: to become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care. This 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.
Those two realities inspired me to establish the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections, two non-profit organizations dedicated to enhancing the lives of young people who experience foster care. They also spurred me on to become an adoptive parent, collaborate with outstanding individuals and organizations, and raise over $15 million dollars to help inspire a re-envisioning of foster care in America.
My goal: To establish a compelling Menu of Engagement Options that invites Americans of all ages to invest in the lives of vulnerable children. To create exciting, new opportunities that allows more Americans to get to know children in their own backyards. To offer folks of all ages innovative ways to create lasting change for the more than 500,000 children who we have placed in foster care.
First on my agenda: To move children out of foster care and into life long families so that they won’t “age out. To accomplish this task the Treehouse Foundation and Beacon Communities LLC built the first Treehouse Community – a multi-generational village in Easthampton, MA where families who are adopting children from the public foster care system live with caring neighbors who invest in one another’s lives daily. Berkshire Children and Families is our child welfare partner at the Treehouse Community where over 100 members, ranging in age from 4 – 90, have lived together for the past 4 years. Together we are co-creating a vibrant community model.
In addition, the Treehouse Foundation has collaborated with a host of folks from all over western Massachusetts to develop the Treehouse Center of Innovation for Foster/Adoptive Care. The TCI is designed to strengthen lives both in the community and throughout the region.
This month we begin expanding the Treehouse Community model through home ownership opportunities. We are inviting first time and seasoned home buyers who are interested in becoming part of this exciting new Treehouse Community Approach to come live on Treehouse Circle.
The Treehouse Community is a place where we ask the questions “Under what conditions do children who have experienced foster care flourish?” and “What does it take for a community to invest in the lives of its most vulnerable citizens of all ages?” We are learning a great deal and are sharing that information with folks in other states who are interested in building Treehouse-inspired communities and developing Treehouse Centers of Innovation.
Children surrounded by a caring community of volunteer counselors and mentors who invest in their health and well-being all year long is at the heart of the Sibling Connections programming as well. Sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care are invited to participate in our year-round sibling connection initiative. This summer over 100 siblings will come together to create joyous, shared memories at Camp To Belong MA. When the campers head home at the end of the week, they will be invited to attend Sibling Sunday, our monthly program.
Each summer over 50 volunteers, ages 21 – 65, come together to support sisters and brothers whose lives have been impacted by foster care. Most have never met a child experiencing foster care. They are drawn to the program because they cannot imagine growing up without their siblings. They come because they care. Many volunteers attend Sibling Sundays, become Sibling Connections board members, help fundraise for the organization, become social workers, CASA advocates, foster and adoptive parents. Volunteer counselors meet the kids, spend time with them, care about them, and become on-going resources in one way or another.
As we celebrate National Foster Care Month, I invite you to support the work of the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections. I invite you to consider children who have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care as “our children”. I invite you to invest in innovation so that our children in foster care will be given the same opportunities our children by birth enjoy. I encourage you to reach out to children and youth in your backyard and give them a soft place to land – something we all deserve.