Author Archives: outsidethefostercarebox

Birdsong Buzz

Kids grooming horses, building with Legos, eating homemade muffins, playing UNO and sitting at a picnic table drawing pictures of their favorite horses. This is a group of happy campers. As they engage in their morning activities, the kids hear the occasional neigh of a horse and the clip clop of hooves as horses are led outside. Some look up and smile. Others continue building, eating, chatting and drawing.

This is Arrival Time at Birdsong Farm. Birdsong, which is situated in a barn that is surrounded by lush green pastures, offers a new approach to summer enrichment that is designed to support children who are experiencing foster care. Later in the day the kids will put on their new riding boots and helmets before they saddle up to ride horses with names like Dorie, PB and Blue. They are all eager and focused beginning riders. They sit up straight, put their heels down and steer their horses around the ring with big smiles on their faces. On hot afternoons the kids spend time giving the horses a bath. Their instructors are equestrians, teachers, foster/adoptive parents and volunteers, both human and animal.

Birdsong Farm started this summer. It’s the last of the three non-profit organizations I planned to establish in order to bring innovation and opportunity to children who experience foster care. The first two, the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections, are focused on creating compelling new ways to increase family and community connections.

Birdsong Farm’s primary mission is to address some of the unique educational challenges children in foster care face. My goal: to collaborate with other out-of-the-box thinkers to inspire a re-envisioning of foster care. We are on our way in Massachusetts! Lots of folks are investing their time, dollars and expertise to create a vibrant new culture of possibility.

I chose to site Birdsong on a farm for a number of reasons. As a social entrepreneur, I am eager to create a year-round learning community that can be replicated across the country and benefit many students. As an educator, I want to address the dismal educational outcomes of our young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care. As a teacher, I value the farm as a classroom. As a foster/adoptive parent, I have come to respect animals as teachers. Specifically horses, dogs, pot bellied pigs, goats, and bunnies who inspire and motivate learning as well as help restore the health and well-being of children who have suffered challenging beginnings.

My maternal grandparents were farmers in northern California. Getting back to the land and having my own farm with a big red barn, an organic garden, and an ark full of animals has been a long time dream. The idea of creating a learning community with a cohort of visionaries, philanthropists, farmers, equestrians, teachers, therapists and students brings me great joy.

While I look for the right piece of land and scout around for the best folks to partner with to develop Birdsong Farm, I want to experiment a little. This summer I decided to launch Birdsong with a small summer program at a beautiful equestrian center. Before we started, kids and families visited to meet their teachers. Watching their faces light up as they strolled around the barn we’ve rented made my heart sing. This is my first barn classroom. Over the years, I’ve set up bulletin boards, learning centers and accessible storage areas in lots of settings, including camps, but not one where horses watched me as I lined up colorful buckets and hung name tags on hooks!

Yesterday after I finished my classroom chores, I sat outside at the picnic table. A wave of happiness washed over me. There were kids in the outdoor ring having a lesson, kids outside washing horses, and kids grooming their ponies. Everyone was connected and engaged in a positive setting. Everyone was safe. Lessons were being learned on many levels and peace filled the air.

Sometimes when I am at Treehouse or Camp To Belong MA and people are connecting in wonderful ways, a feeling of joy washes over me. I feel immense gratitude for all the people who have come together to invest in innovation: volunteering their time and expertise, donating fiscal resources, choosing to become engaged, and actively creating new possibilities.

Today at Birdsong Farm I feel deep appreciation as I watch a group of kids gently brushing the mane of one of their favorite horses. The teacher in me is happy. The visionary in me knows that Birdsong Farm offers a new idea that people can fully embrace. I give thanks for our great summer staff, the kids, their families and this beautiful place. I savor the moment. Now that’s something I look forward to doing more of as Birdsong Farm grows and flourishes!

The Suitcase Project

Challenge: Every day in DCF offices across the state, children who have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care are waiting to find out where they will go next with their belongings in trash bags.

Solution: Send children experiencing foster care the message that they are worthy. Provide each child with a suitcase and fill them with a few special items so that they feel someone cares about them. What a great way for citizens who pay for the public foster care system to enhance the way we practice child welfare in our communities.

How It Works
The Suitcase Project is a Treehouse Foundation initiative designed to support children of all ages who are experiencing foster care: newborns, infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary age kids, middle schoolers and teens.

Our Suitcase Project Pilot Program is currently supporting kids who are being cared for by one DCF office. Our vision: to create a replicable model of the Suitcase Project for DCF offices statewide so that it each youngster who enters foster care in the Commonwealth will automatically receive a suitcase filled with age appropriate items.

How You Can Help!
To ensure that we supply a steady stream of suitcases and developmentally appropriate items such new stuffed animals, blankets, clothing, pajamas, books and/or gift cards, we need your help! We are looking for businesses who will donate items and become Suitcase Project sponsors, individuals who will act as Team Captains to secure in-kind donations, folks who will host Suitcase Events, and others who will help us transport items.

Supporting The Suitcase Project is a great way for families to introduce their kids to the idea of community service. It’s also a fun way for faith based organizations, schools, civic groups and youth groups to become part of this innovative solution. Young people celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, birthdays and other special events can hold a suitcase drive.

To find out how you can help call 413. 527. 7966.

Changing the Narrative of the Foster Care System

My friend and esteemed colleague, award-winning journalist Daniel Heimpel, is the founder and director of Fostering Media Connections based in California. He is touring the country documenting innovative programs and practices that elevate foster care in a variety of ways and trying his hardest to get local media to talk about them. He recently wrote, “We need to change the entire narrative of the foster care system: from the image of something broken to that of a system on the mend. That shift in narrative is very difficult to accomplish. The media’s understanding of foster care is limited, a decade behind what is really happening; and the inertia associated with the established narrative has deep roots.”

Our individual and collective visions and strategies for changing the narrative of the foster care system nationwide include shining the spotlight on innovative solutions and compelling new options being developed by The Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections, Bridge Meadows, The Kinship Center, Generations Together and many others across the country.

Recently the Treehouse Foundation had the honor of being hosted by two philanthropic Giving Circles. At both of these grass roots events, where speakers were surrounded by ordinary citizens who were eager to learn about the dynamic programs being developed to support young Americans experiencing foster care, I was struck by the level of interest that community members of all ages demonstrated – folks want to shift the foster care narrative. They want to become engaged. They just don’t know how. Now they have some interesting possibilities to choose from.

Check out this compelling menu of engagement options that the Treehouse Foundation offered up at recent fundraisers. It offers kids, teens, young adults, families and older adults some exciting new ways to plug in and become part of that narrative change here in Massachusetts. Feel free to select one to support yourself!
If you live in the Bay Area, Daniel is hosting a Fostering Media Connections Mixer tonight. Check out the Fostering Media Connections website or his Facebook page to find out the details.

Treehouse = Family & Community

The Treehouse Approach is
creating a culture of possibility &
changing the narrative of foster care.
It is definitely Out of the Foster Care Box!

The Treehouse Community is a multi-generational neighborhood where families who are adopting children from foster care live with caring neighbors in a vibrant village that fosters connections between people of all ages. Since 2006, over 100 people, ranging in age from 4-90 have been investing in one another’s lives on Treehouse Circle.

Treehouse is also a Center of Innovation for Foster/Adoptive Care that supports children whose lives have been impacted by foster care throughout an entire region.

How do we do that?
By inviting people of all ages to help us bring
innovative programs & practices to vulnerable children AND by expanding the pool of potential resources for our kids in care.

More people engaged = More resources
More resources = More connections
More connections means kids are not “aging out” of foster
care without life-long families & community connections.

Support these unique Treehouse Programs.
Help Re-Envision Foster Care in the Commonwealth!

Big Red Barn Animal Therapy Program at Legacy Farm
It is well documented that animal assisted activities promote healthy relationship building for children who have experienced trauma and loss. Spending time in a barn with certified instructors, parents, social workers and Treehouse staff taking care of animals, learning how to ride a horse and sitting with a bunny in your lap enhance the health and well-being of children whose lives have been impacted by foster care. The Treehouse Foundation has partnered with professionals at Legacy Farm to offer the Big Red Barn Program whenever we have been able to raise money to offer this innovative program to children and families. With your help we can offer it again this summer and fall.

Treehouse-Berkshire East Outdoor Action Project
Berkshire East is known for its winter sports and zip line Canopy Tours.
Research shows that children who have experienced challenging beginnings benefit from gaining mastery over their bodies thru outdoor/sports experiences. Berkshire East offers children living on Treehouse Circle a reduced rate to learn how to ski and snowboard in the winter as well as experiencing zip lining in the spring, summer and fall to build self esteem and competence.

Treehouse Community Garden Project
As we head into our 4th season in the Treehouse Community Garden
Treehouse community members of all ages are led by Hope Guardenier,
experienced garden educator. In addition to caring for the garden itself,
the group is focused on community composting, hosting a weekly Treehouse Farmer’s Market, and creating Treehouse Garden products to sell on Treehouse Circle and throughout the Pioneer Valley.

Treehouse-Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
Early Literacy Program
This fabulous joint project offers young children experiencing foster care throughout the Pioneer Valley the opportunity to come to Treehouse with their parents and participate in a weekly hands-on Early Literacy Program. Children are welcomed to the Treehouse Community Center, enjoy a healthy snack, listen to a story, spend time exploring art materials, hear a second story and take home a book each week. Kids and parents have given this innovative program facilitated by Treehouse and Eric Carle staff a huge thumbs up. It’s the only project of its kind in the region.

Treehouse-Enchanted Circle Arts & Learning Project
The first year that the Arts & Learning Project launched fifteen 5th – 9th graders living at Treehouse were inspired and motivated to learn through the arts – drama, photography, poetry, music and more. The dynamic Enchanted Circle Theatre staff facilitated this amazing adventure along with Treehouse staff and elders. This year, we partnered with Hampshire Educational Collaborative to take the Arts & Learning Project over to the White Brook Middle School’s After School Program.

Treehouse Hear Our Voices Project
Empowering young women, their mothers and female elders through
a customized Holyoke Rows program last fall was very exciting to witness
and be a part of. Elders teaching younger women how to fasten into their boats, showing them rowing techniques, and seeing mother/daughter teams learning together is very inspirational. With your help, we look forward to continuing this Connecticut River journey during the spring, summer and fall.

Treehouse Suitcase Project
Providing children entering the public foster care system with a suitcase so they don’t have to carry their personal belongings in trash bags is a way of honoring each young person’s life. The Treehouse Suitcase Project is piloting a program with one DCF office to create a replicable model that can be used in DCF offices across the Commonwealth in order to ensure that every newborn, infant, toddler, pre-schooler, elementary aged child, middle schooler and teen is shown that they are cared about by people in their communities. Join with your family, friends and neighbors to collect suitcases. Show our kids experiencing foster care that you find them worthy of your investment!

The Treehouse Foundation is deeply grateful for your interest in learning more about our menu of new Treehouse programs that benefit children experiencing foster care. Thank you for your support!

The Story of the Phone Call

Some adoptive families call it “Gotcha Day”. Others call it “Arrival Day”. In some homes it is known as “Family Day”. For our family today is “the day” and we are still trying to come up with a name for it. We refer to it as “the day you came into our lives” and we have photos that capture the moment. We know it doesn’t really matter what we call it because we all understand its significance and my youngest child knows this part of her story by heart.

Eleven years ago today I didn’t give birth but I remember it as clearly as I do laboring and birthing my first two children. Like those first two birthing experiences, the day stands out with a clarity that defies the passing of time.

On May 11, 1999, I went to work, totally unaware that my life was about to change. It was a beautiful sunny morning, a little bit warmer than today. I dropped my 12 year old daughter off at school and said, “Have a great day!” Then I drove to my Brookline Village toy store, No Kidding!, a place that was known for celebrating the magic of childhood, family and community.

It was the day before my birthday. I was in a really good mood. After saying hello to all of my colleagues and walking through the store to see what areas needed to be replenished, I went downstairs to the basement to begin collecting toys, dolls, dress up clothes and stuffed animals – one of my favorite tasks.

While I was downstairs plucking goodies off of shelves and imagining re-designs upstairs I heard the phone ring. Someone upstairs picked up the phone and I continued pondering the possibilities. A few moments later she came downstairs to tell me that there was someone on the phone who wanted to speak to me.

When I picked up the phone from the child sized table next to the fax machine and heard the voice of the lovely social worker who had taught our MAPP training class and done our family’s home study so that we could become a foster family, it didn’t dawn on me that she would be placing anyone in our home. We had just completed the course the night before. I thought she might be following up with some forgotten detail from the class.

Instead she told me that two little sisters had just come onto her case load and she wondered if we would open our home to them. Standing in the basement of No Kidding! I felt tears spring to my eyes. I wiped them away and told her I would call my husband and get right back to her. We said a resounding YES! The rest is history. The girls and their peers in foster care inspired me to sell my stores and head out into the world to collaborate with other innovators to inspire a re-envisioning of foster care in America.

When the girls were little I used to take them to say goodnight to the horses at a nearby stable. The three of us would go from stall to stall wishing the horses a good night. Before we got back into the car we would say, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…. Then I would wish them each a wonderful life. All was quiet and peaceful in the barn. All was well with us. The girls would fall asleep in their car seats and I would scoop them up and place them in their beds when we got home.

Over the years our lives have changed but our love of horses and barns remain. So does my wish that the girls and all young Americans have a wonderful life. I also wish them all the opportunity to experience caring connections. Today, as we celebrate the anniversary of our first meeting, I look forward to telling The Story of the Phone Call and celebrating those connections which have enriched my life in so many ways…

A Soft Place To Land

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.

A Fabulous Example For Us All

Mel Lambert has a heart of gold. She is good, kind and generous. She gives her time, treasure and talent freely to vulnerable children and to sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care. Here is a great example of Mel in Action.

Mel recently became a Sibling Connections board member. Our primary mission is to create enduring relationships for siblings who experience foster care through innovative programs and practices. As such, she understands that it is the board’s fiduciary responsibility to raise $100,000.00 every year so that 100 sisters and brothers from all across the state can come spend time together at Camp To Belong MA. How did she approach this task??! With incredible gusto!

She threw a Dance A Thon in the shopping plaza in front of her Brockton Spa and Gym and invited the entire community to come and learn about our year-round sibling connection initiative. Who showed up? The Mayor, her dance and exercise instructors, gym members, her mom and several generations of her entire family (Mel is one of eight siblings so she truly understands what it would mean to not be connected to your sisters and brothers throughout your childhood). Her miniature ponies were there, Lambert’s Market donated food throughout the day, music was playing, people were dancing and Mel was up on the stage leading us all. It was a remarkable celebration with the focus on keeping kids connected.

One of my favorite moments of the day was looking around the parking lot and seeing campers dancing, making bracelets, and happily introducing little kids to the ponies. Mel’s mom was seated up by the stage clapping her hands and tapping her feet to the music as her daughters and grandchildren moved to Mel’s instructions. People of all ages were having a wonderful time tasting food, chatting and putting their donations in the Camp To Belong MA box.

At the end of the day, after we had walked the ponies up onto Mel’s Pony Pals trailer and swept up the last of the shavings, we stood around and shared our collective appreciation for the event. As we walked across the parking lot to our car I asked my daughter to turn around and look at Mel. “Now that is a good woman!”, I said. “She sure is!”, remarked my 11 year old daughter fully recognizing Mel’s amazing leadership and generosity. Thank you Mel! You are a fabulous example for us all.

PS.. At last count, Mel’s efforts have brought in over $10,000.00 to support Camp To Belong MA and the checks are still arriving…

Tipping Points

Recently a seasoned non-profit professional working with the Treehouse Foundation gave me a strategic homework assignment: to go out and talk with successful colleagues around the country who are further along the non-profit path to find out when their organizations achieved optimum forward motion, their tipping points. In short, to find out how these non-profit leaders created the tipping points that led to their success.

I found the assignment exciting for a couple of reasons. First, the Treehouse Foundation and it’s two major initiatives, the Treehouse Community and the Treehouse Center of Innovation for Foster/Adoptive Care, are young. Typically organizational development consultants would be talking about tipping points and leverage with a more seasoned organization. However, thanks to the unique collaborations we have created with Beacon Communities, Berkshire Children & Families, Treehouse community members and our Treehouse Innovation Partners, we have been able to accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time. Second, I love collaborating with others to move the Treehouse Foundation forward so we can expand the number of folks actively supporting our mission to help improve the odds for or our young people experiencing foster care.

Before I started my assignment, I wanted to look closely at the two major initiatives led by the Treehouse Foundation:

1. The Treehouse Community is home to over 100 people, ranging in age from 4 to 90. It’s a multi-generational neighborhood that strives to help prevent children from “aging out” of foster care by removing them from the foster care system and providing them with enduring family relationships and community connections.

In the Treehouse Community, where families who are adopting children from foster care live with neighbors who invest in their lives daily, we have learned that when we care about the lives of all of our neighbors the health of everyone involved is enhanced. Widespread investment in lives, community based solutions, and well-being are critical to the success of the Treehouse Community and the Treehouse Community Approach.

2. The Treehouse Center of Innovation for Foster/Adoptive Care seeks to collaborate with philanthropists, civic and business leaders, non-profit organizations, colleges and universities, national thought leaders, and social entrepreneurs to create innovative programs and practices. The TCI, in collaboration with its Treehouse Innovation Partners, supports the strengthening of lives throughout western MA. TCI is currently collaborating with Enchanted Circle Theatre, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Friends of Children, Hampshire Educational Collaborative, Holyoke Rows, Sibling Connections, School Sprouts, Smith College, Westfield State, UMass and others to transform lives both on Treehouse Circle and throughout the western region. Our goal: to develop and pilot a compelling new menu of engagement options that serve children, families and communities in our backyard – a menu of exciting new ways for people of all ages to support vulnerable children that we can offer up to the nation for replication.

Sharing the unique Treehouse Foundation strategy for creating a culture of possibility is helping to fundamentally change the way we care for our youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care. The Treehouse Community and TCI Approaches bring more energy, people, ideas, collaborations, creativity and fiscal resources to our young people in foster care. The result: hundreds of young people in our region are not at high risk for homelessness, incarceration, teen parenting. leaving school without a diploma and unemployment because they are surrounded my a cadre of caring people who are invested in their success.

With the Treehouse Community and TCI Approaches in mind, I got out my copy of Malcom Gladwell’s book, the Tipping Point. It’s a book about change. Gladwell says on, that the Tipping Point “is concerned with figuring out the rules by which social change happens.” The phrase comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot upwards.” Wikipedia notes that tipping points are “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”

As soon as I was satisfied that I knew what I was asking people to describe, I picked up the phone and began reaching out to colleagues around the country. I told them about my assignment and listened closely to their tipping point stories.. I learned about creative strategies that non-profits engage in to stay alive in this economically challenging time. I learned a lot about organizational development. The most interesting fact I learned was this: Each and every one of my colleagues said that their organizational tipping point came when people decided to invest in their mission, their approach and their idea.

Widespread investment looks like this: committed philanthropists, engaged board members, support from civic leaders, multi-disciplinary buy-in, writers sharing the good news about the organization, a broad based coalition of support for the mission and vision of the organization, an array of strong partnerships.

When people chose to invest in the organizations they began to live their mission and vision in the best ways possible. They served more people. They began to create lasting change. They documented their findings and shared them with others around the country and inspired community leaders and citizens to join in and become part of the solution. They broadened their base of support and began to tip.

What I learned from my esteemed colleagues is that when lots of people consider the Treehouse Foundation’s mission and innovative approach an asset AND commit to it wholeheartedly, we will begin to move toward our tipping point. May non-profit leaders used the phrase, “strength in numbers”. In short, we need a solid base of investment that makes the line on the Treehouse Foundation graph shoot upwards.

Here’s to investment in the Treehouse Foundation! Investment- in healthy lives, raised expectations and engaged communities. Investment- in innovation, opportunity and leveling the playing field. Investment- in the creation of a “culture of possibility” for all of our nation’s children.