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.
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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!
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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 Gladwell.com, 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.

Judy Nelson Interview

I had a wonderful time chatting with Judy Nelson, well respected child welfare professional from California on her radio show about the work of Treehouse and Sibling Connections. Here’s the link to the program. Hope you enjoy it!

My Top Five

You know me. I am a full time advocate for re-envisioning foster care in America. Vision begins with what we want for our children. Getting people together to create and articulate this new vision is key to moving forward as a nation. Highlighting our collective vision and innovation are critical next steps to securing broader investment. Recently I have been in conversation with innovators across the country who are also eager to make this happen. One of them told me about an early childhood conference in California called Investments in Early Learning that I found very interesting.

The keynote speaker was Joan Lombardi, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Policy and Inter-Departmental Liason for Early Childhood, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She made a great speech and in it spoke about what she wants for young children in America. In it she said, “Here’s my top five, my list of what I want for children. Number one, joy. We need to accept that it’s okay for us to have, as a goal, that children are joyful. Then, order. Maria Montessori understood this. Third, persistence. Our kids live in an instant world, and when things don’t happen quickly, they give up. Fourth, curiosity; and fifth, language. Not just words, but the language of math, the language of music.”

Ms. Lombardi inspired me. I sat down and began writing My Top Five. Here it is. It’s a list of what I want for children who have been removed from their homes and placed in the public foster care system.

Number one, life-long connections. We need to accept that its okay for us to have, as a goal, that children in foster care are provided with enduring family relationships and lasting community connections so they can spend their childhoods within a loving family system and a supportive community.

Then, opportunity. When I walked through the doors of child welfare for the first time, the lack of opportunity was the first thing I noticed. I looked at my children by birth who had been given the gifts of possibility, community wide encouragement, and opportunity. I looked at the little ones in my arms, spoke to their peers who were leaving the foster care system and was inspired to level the playing field. We all know about the 25,000 young Americans who “age out” of foster care annually with no family, no community and few opportunities. We know about the every day challenges they face and the fact that they are at high risk for homelessness, incarceration, leaving school without a diploma, teen parenting, and lives of poverty. It is time to change this depressing and predictable statistic.

Third, stellar mental health services so the half a million children who are in foster care, and the thousands who are being removed from their homes and placed in foster care across this country every day can understand the complexities in their lives, begin to heal and move forward to live an expansive and connected life.

Fourth, innovative educational experiences so they can thoroughly enjoy learning, feel competent at school, be on par with their peers, and graduate with a diploma and a positive plan for their future.

Fifth, our investment. Without our investment of time, resources, and innovation things will remain the same. Lives will be wasted, potential will go untapped, and the nation will continue to fill homeless shelters, prisons and mental health facilities in communities around the country with young Americans in our backyards who we did not invest in when they first entered the public foster care system. We need to turn this ship around. In order to do that Americans need to invest in the lives of its most vulnerable children.

Many young people in foster care whose lives have been surrounded by investment and innovation are flourishing. They fill us with hope and encourage us to continue developing an array of public and private partnerships that inspire leading edge thinking and action.

Thanks Joan Lombardi. I appreciate your diligent efforts to promote investment in early childhood development. And I love the first item on your list. Joy. Now there’s something to shoot for. Joy for all children in America. Let’s start today! Bring joy to our young people in foster care. Contact me through my blog: Out of the Foster Care Box. Contribute your unique investment!

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

This month has been a time of traveling, connecting and thinking outside of my life’s little box. I was lucky enough to spend some February days with family in California where the grass was green, the trees were in bloom, and the flowerboxes screamed “Springtime!”

I always appreciate going home. I love the feel of the California sun on my face. Riding along with the car windows open in February is such a gift for someone from snow country! Leaning back with a huge smile on my face, I can feel winter’s cobwebs lift from my body and fly out the window. I can’t wait to get on a bike or out on a walking trail. Feasting my eyes on people in colorful clothes, some even wearing flip flops and short sleeved t-shirts, revives me. People are outside. They’re sauntering. My heart soars.

I give thanks to my parents and grandparents for choosing to settle in the west – all those Cockertons who came to northern California from England in the 1800s and the Jamiesons who came west from Scotland to settle outside of Sacramento. They gave me the legacy of a landscape full of green hills and oak trees bordering the Pacific. Like my mother and grandmother, I am a Native Daughter of the Golden West!

Throughout my childhood I sat by my grandmother’s side and asked her to tell me about her family’s adventures. When I was in high school I used to drive over to her house to spend the night. She was in her 80s and we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Granny was a loving mother of 9 with nearly 18 adoring grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren to boot. She was our beloved matriarch, all five feet of her. She was also an awe- inspiring storyteller.

One of my favorite childhood tales was the story my grandmother used to tell about her family’s move to northern California when she was 10 years old. The journey began in Fresno with a small group of wagons and a giant flock of sheep.

She always set the stage as I got ready for bed. Her family members were as familiar to me as my favorite storybook characters. After I brushed my teeth she would continue the story, walking around the house turning out the lights in the kitchen and the living room. I would crawl in bed, snuggle under the covers, and glance up at a photo of her family that hung above the bed.

The most riveting part of the story came when she told about the difficulties they had crossing a river after a big storm. The rain had made it almost impossible for the group to forge the river without being swept downstream but her father and brothers got them all safely across. The way she described the ordeal was mesmerizing.

At the point where I knew my ancestors were safely on the road north with their big flock of sheep, I would start to drift. By the time her false teeth made their way through the Polident bubbles and landed gently at the bottom of the little glass on her bedside table, I would feel cozy and content, wrapped up in the warmth of a family tale.

This is the sense of family and belonging I hope I have woven into the tapestry of my children’s lives. I certainly had a wonderful mentor. My grandmother gave me the gift of her goodness. It radiated from her. I was still in my early twenties when my father died. I flew home from New York, drove straight to my grandmother’s, and lay my head in her lap. Her presence was an immense comfort to me.

I believe all children deserve to experience generosity, kindness, and the feeling of belonging that I felt when I spent time with my grandmother. During my trip I was fortunate to spend time riding bikes, walking at Land’s End in San Francisco and meandering down College Avenue in Berkeley with like-minded folks who are eager to collaborate on inspiring a re-envisioning of foster care in America.

Together we are developing new ways to enhance the lives of children from the east coast to the west coast and beyond. It is definitely an idea whose time has come. Stay tuned. We’re moving forward with my grandmother’s legacy nestled firmly in our hearts.

We hope you find our innovative efforts worthy of your financial support. We need it to effect the level of change this task requires. If you do, please make a donation at our secure website: www.treehousecommunities.org

Thank you!

Birdsong Farm

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!

Mission Possible

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.

Happy New Year

Snow Days

Snow falling softly all night long in New England typically means there is no school the following morning. Teachers, kids and their families have a Snow Day.

I remember moving from California in the 1970s to teach in a school in the Boston suburbs. I was a twentysomething teacher who had never lived through a snowy winter. Recess for me growing up in the Bay Area meant throwing on a light sweater or a corduroy coat and heading outside to play. When I was six we had a light dusting of snow at our house and my mom went outside with a spoon, collected a bowl of snow and made “snow ice cream”. I had never made a snowperson, been on ice skates, or sat on a sled. I didn’t have a clue that part of my teaching duties would include helping my class full of 4-6 year olds deal with snowsuits, mittens, hats, gloves and boots before and after their outside play time!

“I remember hearing something about a February Vacation and wondering, “What is that?” It seemed a bit excessive and certainly meant that the school year lasted longer… All it took was one season for me to completely embrace the concept of a winter vacation where you could escape from the cold weather and stand up straight. I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of layering yet – a concept I have perfected over the years. Now I don’t care how pudgy I look. Forget fashion. All I care about is warmth.

Then there were Snow Days. Days off from school during the week when a snow storm prevented safe travel. My first year of teaching, whenever there was a Snow Day I headed over to the inner courtyard of the Boston Public Library to watch snowflakes fall silently, creating a soft white blanket of untouched snow. That was pure magic. It was so peaceful – my first experience of being surrounded by a deep silence that is full of well-being.

When we moved from Back Bay to Concord, I had the pleasure of being woken up on Snow Days to the sound of a fog horn. In those days, the town of Concord sounded one type of horn to let residents know when someone escaped from the Concord Prison. Then they sounded a distinctive Snow Day horn to let folks know when school was closed. Those of us who worked in the Concord schools could simply roll over and go back to sleep… If you had no children, no dogs, and no other major responsibilities it was heaven on earth.

A Snow Day was literally a free day inserted into the middle of the week thanks to Mother Nature. We spent the day reading, baking, making snow people, sledding, and walking around town visiting friends, neighbors and our favorite stores. Sometimes we took our sleds along so we could pull our purchases home.

This past Saturday night there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground. B and her little sister asked to go out into the backyard with the dog and play. We turned on the lights as they bundled up in snow garb and prepared to head out. Their favorite neighbor came over and joined them. For two hours they played. Laughter floated into the house as they built a snow fort, played on the backyard slide, and went sledding down gentle slopes before coming in for cups of hot chocolate. We were thrilled about the unexpected gift. There were smiles all around: happy kids, happy dog, happy parents.

Today we are experiencing a winter storm. Schools in western Massachusetts are closed. Kids at Treehouse are outside sculpting snow people, snow creatures and snow forts. Some families are using kick sleds to travel across the meadow. There are four pots of delicious soup in the fridge from Monday night’s Soup Tasting. Perhaps some community members will come together and share a tasty lunch. Maybe there will be a Hot Chocolate Party. Tea pots and mugs are standing at the ready. There are art supplies in the Community Center closet and the Game Library is fully stocked with board games. There are movies to be watched and the library is full of books to be read.

Happy Snow Day Everyone!

Jingle Bells

This beautiful photo of Jesse, Evelyn and their captivating Christmas tree transports me back to December 1980. Jesse was one month old and we were celebrating our first holiday season as a family. We were two excited parents eager to start creating some traditions of our own – traditions that honored our dual heritage and felt kid friendly.

The first thing we did was go out and search for a menorah that would be the centerpiece of our family Hanukkah celebrations. We found a beautiful handmade menorah at Kolbo in Brookline, MA. I just polished it for this Friday night’s Hanukkah fiesta. It will bring joy to our 10 year old and her little sister just like it delighted Jesse and Jenna as they were growing up. We have photos of all the kids with our Kolbo menorah and the collection of smaller menorahs that we’ve accumulated to add more light to the eight night Hanukkah experience. In each one the kids look relaxed and radiant.

Christmas also makes us happy. Our Christmas traditions have evolved over the past twenty nine years too but they always seem to include opening presents in front of the fireplace, making fresh squeezed orange juice, listening to great music, and eating a tasty brunch. When I owned my toy stores, I always spent Christmas Day in my robe and slippers. When guests arrived for dinner they were greeted by a woman in her pajamas with a huge smile on her face.

This year our tree will go up after Hanukkah. We will bring out the ornament boxes and sift through our collection of hand picked options. We’ll choose which ones we’ll hang up while the Roche sisters sing Christmas carols and freshly baked cookies are placed in tins to deliver to our friends and neighbors. Someone just gave us a recipe for cookies that horses with Cushings disease can eat. I think we’ll test that recipe for Chloe and Corey over at the barn.

While we are baking and decorating and humming along to the Roche sisters, I am going to look at this photo of Jesse, Evelyn and their fabulous little tree and smile. Knowing that a piece of our family legacy is with them on the west coast makes me happy. I’ll fondly remember the first five years of our family holidays. That time in our lives when we put up the Christmas tree on the first of December. When Jesse, fresh from his nightly bath, would choose a colorful tissue wrapped package from the Ornament Basket, unwrap it, and get that twinkle in his eyes when he discovered what treat was inside. That is still one of my all time favorite bedtime rituals.

We had fun with the Ornament Basket for the 24 days before Christmas until our collection was large enough to fill a 6 foot Christmas tree… You can see some of Jesse’s favorites in the photo – the sheep, those little stockings, the stuffed dino up by the star… I remember him unwrapping them, placing them on a branch, reading stories by the light of the Christmas tree, and then heading upstairs to his truck bed (that’s now stored in the garage).

I’m looking forward to celebrating the holidays with my family this month.
Whether folks are at our house or in their own homes, I am delighted that
our fun family traditions are being sprinkled from coast to coast.

Thanks for sharing the photo Jess.
All my love to you and Evelyn.
Enjoy that tree.
It’s adorable!

National Adoption Month

In November 2009 there are more than 120,000 children waiting in foster care for an adoptive family. This month President Obama will issue a proclamation to announce National Adoption Month to raise awareness about this situation. I appreciate the way National Adoption Month encourages Americans to think about the importance of moving children from foster care into life-long families. It is also an opportune time to envision new realities for our children who remain in the public foster care system.

Every year nearly 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care without any enduring family relationships or community connections. This usually happens on their 18th birthday. They commonly leave the system without a place to live, a high school diploma, a job or the consistent support of a caring adult. The result: 25,000 vulnerable young Americans leave foster care and experience rates of homelessness, incarceration, and unemployment far above their peers.

Federal dollars have become available to begin addressing this “aging out” crisis. The focus is on creating programs for teens. But finding new ways to embrace and care for our most vulnerable children on the front end of their foster care experience is also critical in order to prevent “aging out” from happening in the first place.

In 2006, The Treehouse Foundation invited people of all ages to become part of a unique “aging out” solution designed to help America understand under
what conditions our young people with foster care histories can flourish. Its leadership led to the creation of a multigenerational neighborhood where families adopting children from foster care live with supportive neighbors.

The Treehouse Community model emphasizes finding humane and compassionate responses to support children that are community driven rather than solely reliant on social service systems. It provides children with a permanent family and a neighborhood invested in their health and well-being so that they do not leave foster care without anyone to count on. Treehouse inspired communities are currently being developed in California and Oregon.

Most Americans will hear about National Adoption Awareness Month and think it is a good thing. They will like the fact that on National Adoption Day a few thousand youngsters will be adopted from foster care. Some will be moved to pick up the phone to help out. Most will not. Not being offered any other alternatives to adoption or foster care, hundreds of thousands of potential resources will walk away from the children who need them the most.

Here’s an idea. Let’s create a menu of compelling new programs that serve kids in neighborhoods across America. Let’s offer folks an inviting array of ways to help, big and small. Partner with City Year and AmeriCorps as well as local colleges, universities and community organizations to help implement these exciting new program options and promote widespread engagement. Let’s give more Americans a chance to meet kids who need them. My experience is that volunteers who spend time with kids at camp,
in a garden or a barn are the ones who consider broader possibilities down the road.

To date my partners and I have created the following replicable models: the Treehouse Community, a year round sibling connection initiative, an animal therapy program, an intergenerational community garden, and an arts and learning project. Together we can do much more.

As we celebrate National Adoption Month this November please choose to honor the lives of the more than 500,000 children in our nation’s foster care system. Invest in innovation so that we can re-envision foster care in America.

Sweet Baby

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Yesterday I met a beautiful little 3 week old baby girl in the Treehouse Library. She was sleeping peacefully in her little pink bunting, complete with fuzzy ears and feet. Her foster mother had come to Treehouse to attend a monthly foster parent support group for families in the region.

As I gazed down upon her I felt a rush of emotion. I realized that anyone who met this sweet baby would never know that she had been removed from her family and placed in foster care. In that moment she was not labeled, she was not stigmatized or limited by us in any way.

I stood by her car seat and thought, “She is full of potential and, if we care for her in the right ways, she will be able to live her life fully on a level playing field with her peers who are not in the system. If we thoughtfully care for her, if we invest in her well-being and her life, she will be given every opportunity to flourish and succeed. If we pay attention, she will be able to live a healthy and productive life.

A young woman who lives at Treehouse was doing her homework when the baby entered the Library. She was busy at the computer but when she saw the baby and heard us say that she was only 3 weeks old, she got up and walked over to say hello. “Is she your baby?” she innocently asked the woman standing next to her car seat. “No,” the woman responded. “I’m her foster mother.”

She and I stood together touching her little pink toes. “I’ll bet you looked just like her when you were a baby!” I said quietly. I knew she was thinking back about her beginnings. I knew she was reflecting upon her experiences in foster care. She smiled. I hugged her. She went back to the computer to collect her things.

The parent support group was about to start so I made my way out of the Library. Out in the foyer I turned around and looked back at both girls. I silently vowed to continue to do whatever I could to make things better for them both. These lovely girls and their peers are my inspiration. They deserve the new realities we are creating for them!

“Onward and upward!” I say to myself.
“Raise that money!”
“Champion transformation!”
“The best way to grow is to change.”
“So, be the change! Collaborate with others and show 800,000 kids in foster
care that they are worthy of our time, our investment, and our resources.”

I am deeply grateful for all the wonderful people who are on this journey to support our nation’s children in foster care with me: funders, program partners, board members, program planners, volunteers, business people, fiscal wizards, counselors, rowing coaches, drama queens, artists, IT specialists, friends, family, wise mentors, networking colleagues, architects, camp owners, social entrepreneurs, teachers, therapists, college professors, quilters, knitters, community weavers, visionaries and Treehouse community members of all ages. Your contributions make Treehouse, Camp To Belong MA, Sibling Sundays, and all the changes I envision possible.

We know what happens when 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care without enduring family or community connections. We know what happens when we scoop up 3 week old babies and give them the best possible care. Imagine if that was America’s new policy! It can happen. All it requires is for us to become invested in better outcomes for all of our nation’s children.

An Amazing Gift

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Today I was given an amazing gift. The kind of gift that takes your breath away…. The gentleman who gave me the gift is Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year and founder of Be The Change/Service Nation. Mr. Khazei, an inspirational social entrepreneur, has been one of my heroes for the past 10 years. Today at a rally in the Boston Common Alan formally announced that he would run for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat. My gift came at the end of his announcement speech.

Alan has visited us at our Treehouse Community in western Massachusetts. Treehouse was on Alan’s What Works Tour – a tour of successful Massachusetts programs that Alan would like to take with him to Washington for replication. He understands the value of creating multi-generational communities that support families who are adopting children from the foster care system. He appreciates the strategy of asking people of all ages to become part of a re-envisioning of foster care. Like me, he would like to see Treehouse Communities built all across the country. Like me, Alan believes that citizen led initiatives are powerful tools for change.

Alan is an innovative thinker who envisions new realities and then works hard to make them happen. I remember when Time magazine named him one of the “Top 50 Leaders Under 40”. Alan and his wife, Vanessa Kirsch of New Profit Inc. have dedicated themselves to developing innovative solutions to social problems for almost 20 years. These two leading social entrepreneurs have collaborated with citizens, legislators, philanthropists, business leaders, social entrepreneurs and Presidents to bring much needed change to communities across America.

Alan worked side by side with Senator Kennedy to craft the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that President Obama signed in April. The Act is considered to be a milestone for the national service movement. More importantly, it offers up a new public philosophy that encourages America to look to its entrepreneurs and innovators in both the public and private sectors for creative solutions to our most pressing social needs.

Alan’s keen intelligence, combined with an outstanding ability to bring people together and move them forward is awe-inspiring. At today’s rally a City Year alum spoke about the power of Alan’s approach to national service and youth empowerment. His leadership skills, combined with a deep dedication to making this country stronger, make Alan an outstanding candidate for our next Massachusetts state senator.

At the end of his announcement, Alan spoke about the need for Big Citizenship. He spoke about the need to look to what has always been America’s greatest natural resource – We the People. He reminded us that it has always been citizens that have led great change in America. He encouraged people to become engaged. Then he shared my story – the story of one woman’s personal journey from ordinary citizen to social entrepreneur, inspired by the children she loves and finds worthy of her investment.

In doing so he honored our children experiencing foster care. He extended his hand and said, “You are on the right track. You are motivating people to transform foster care.” It was a generous and kind act. In that moment Alan Khazei blessed my life and my vision. He gave me hope. Hope for my dreams, hope for my Big Citizenship ideas, and hope for our children.

Thank you Alan! Here’s to a whole host of new realities and opportunities for our young people in foster care and their peers throughout the Commonwealth. Here’s to a whole host of new citizen led initiatives that strengthen the lives of all of us who live in America! Here’s to you!

Stories of Hope

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I remember that “Aha Moment” 10 years ago, as I stood in my toy store pondering a comment that a well-educated customer had just made about “throwaway kids” in our country. It’s a freeze frame moment: I am standing by the Lego section, 5 month old baby asleep in her Baby Bjorn carrier with her little head resting on my chest. My head is nodding slowly as I talk to myself. “ You know the real challenges children who have been placed in foster care face. You need to make a choice. Will you create new outcomes for this beautiful baby, her siblings and her peers in foster care? Do you have the courage to create new realities for our nation’s most vulnerable kids?”

The question that Marshall Ganz of the Kennedy School would have asked me would probably have been a bit different. I imagine he would have looked at me and queried, “Will you create a story of hope?” Ganz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard has written, “A story of hope begins with the recognition that an urgent challenge can become a moment of choice.” It is that moment when we feel a current reality being replaced with new options and a sense of promise.

Ganz states, “By turning a bad, hopeless or overwhelming situation into a moment of choice, we have given the moment real significance. We are now in the midst of a new story.” Before we may have been resigned to an inevitable fate. When we are touched by a story of hope, we are moved to consider new possibilities. Stories of hope are created when we decide to make the right choices and take action toward shaping our desired future.

Since that day in the Lego section I have worked with fabulous teams of people to create stories of hope through my work with the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections. The result: Many lives are being enriched, blessed, and honored. Together we have chosen to become members of a group of leading edge thinkers and doers who share a collective identity that helps each of us feel supported in the risks we take as we transform our communities and the nation!

Joyous Shared Memories

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//see more photos of ctb in the photo gallery

Our 5th season of Camp To Belong MA was a HUGE success!

80 campers and 55 volunteer counselors showed up in the Berkshires to help create joyous shared memories for sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care.

Check out these photos! You can feel the connection and happiness that was floating around camp all week long. On Friday morning I woke up realizing that the reason CTB MA feels so special is that all of us, kids and adults alike, spend time blessing one another’s lives – on the basketball courts, the banana boats, the trapeze, the climbing wall, the pool, the lake, the dining hall, and beyond.

We sang, danced, played and honored one another in the best ways possible. It was a win-win for us all. CTB MA volunteer counselors range in age from 20 – 65. They come from all walks in life. They come from all across the country to create new realities for siblings whose lives have been impacted by foster care. Some counselors are foster or adoptive parents. Some are social workers. Most have simply raised their hands and said, “I can help!” Please consider raising your hand and supporting young people experiencing foster care in your community. There are so many ways to share your expertise!

Out of Love

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//photo credit

One of my favorite summer activities is sitting under the shade of a leafy green tree at the Barn, watching two beautiful young girls who I love ride their favorite horses. These sisters have adored horses since they were babies. To watch them riding with such skill, grace, and focus warms my heart.

Recently a woman approached me to say she had heard that I became a full time child advocate “because I was angry at the child welfare system for failing children who have been placed in the public foster care system.”

While that could be someone else’s motive, it wasn’t mine. I certainly learned important lessons about the child welfare system when we became a foster family but anger was not the root cause for my decision to become a social entrepreneur.

Here’s the truth. I established the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections from a place of love. Two beautiful baby girls were placed in our home. I fell in love with them instantly. They were so full of life. Their potential was palpable. I wanted to bless their lives.

As I stood in the doorway of the child welfare offices with a child on each hip, it became clear to me that the best way to honor their lives and the lives of their siblings and peers in the foster care system was to collaborate with other out-of-the-box thinkers to create fabulous new programs full of color, whimsy, joy and connection.

I considered becoming a full time foster parent for a minute but quickly realized that I would only be able to have a positive impact on a relatively small number of children. A short time later it became clear to me. I needed to get out in the world and do what I do best: create new programs that invite people of all ages to help transform the way we think and act toward our nation’s children who have been placed in foster care.

My decision came from a place of love. It’s a life decision that I fully embrace. It’s a pleasure to be working with such fabulous people at Treehouse and Sibling Connections who are dedicated to building innovative organizations, communities and programs that inspire a re-envisioning of foster care.

I look forward to doing more. It is a pleasure to bless the lives of the children I love and respect. Especially these two young girls on horseback who have taught me so much over the past 10 years!

Ask Yourself

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In a recent interview Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst and author, asks what meaning human life has if nobody has ever seen you.

Ask yourself: As a child who saw you? Who heard you? Was there anyone with who you could be totally yourself and to whom you could trust your heart responses and speak your soul responses. Someone who made you think, Gosh, I am somebody. They’re happy I’m here.

She goes on to say, “Love is the real power. It’s the energy that cherishes. The more you work with that energy, the more you will see how people respond naturally to it, and the more you will want to use it. It brings out your creativity, and helps everyone around you flower. Your children, the people you work with – everyone blooms.”

Showing UP!

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When it comes down to it, life is about showing up. Showing up for the people you care about, again and again, until you can’t show up anymore. Creating new realities for children who have experienced foster care is about showing up too. Every day on Treehouse Circle children who have experienced foster care are surrounded by adults who show up and demonstrate that they are truly invested in their well-being, their daily lives, and their futures.

Showing up is a simple concept.
At Treehouse kids who have been placed in foster care live in a beautiful neighborhood where they are surrounded by caring adults who show up every day to offer them life-long families, safety, stability, security, and support. It’s truly that simple.

Treehouse is dedicated to creating new realities for young people whose lives have been impacted by foster care. It’s about connecting kids to caring people, stellar resources, and new opportunities.

Imagine That! Instead of statistics that shout “Outcomes for youth who have been in the public foster care system are dismal!” we could replace the homeless, incarcerated, unemployed, and at-risk outcomes with life in Treehouse Communities where kids are surrounded by life-long families and invested community members who help them heal, establish safe & trusting relationships, and imagine a future filled with new possibilities.

Follow the Treehouse example. Show you care. Show up!
Treehouse …
• Family
• Community
• Support
• Positive life-long connections
• New life opportunities
• Lives well-lived
• Creating new realities for kids who experience foster care in America!

Treehouse – a model that’s worth investing in!

A New Perspective

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People are always asking me where the name Treehouse comes from. I love treehouses. They represent a childhood icon that brings a smile to the young and the young at heart. A treehouse is a place you climb up into; a place where you can find a new perspective – a more expansive view. It’s a place where you gather with friends, feeling safe and cozy, where you can dream and imagine all of life’s possibilities.

That safe cozy feeling is what those of us who live, work, and dream at the first Treehouse Community experience every day. Here, together, we’ve been given an opportunity to begin envisioning another way to nurture our children who
have experienced foster care.

Since June 2006, over 100 people, ranging in age from 4 – 90, have been living, working, and playing on Treehouse Circle. For the past three years we have been getting to know one another and in the process families and a vibrant community are being built. Relationships are being forged. Lives are changing.

At Treehouse, children with foster care histories are being surrounded by people who care about them and are actively investing in their lives. They have families, friends, and a neighborhood full of people who are wishing them well. Every day. They show up at high school graduations, school science fairs and tea parties. They help with homework, attend performances, bake cookies, and share birthday cakes.

As we enter our third year we can see that Treehouse is becoming the Center of Innovation it is meant to be. We are collaborating with partners throughout the region to weave a colorful tapestry of connections, inviting people of all ages to participate in our unique Treehouse programming. Together we are building new safety nets for children, families & elders.

More importantly, as children’s lives are being infused with caring people, they are beginning to dream. They are learning not to settle quietly for the way things were, for the way they were certain things would always be. Instead, they are dreaming of choices, options, and possibilities. And we, the adults in their lives, are there to help them explore those opportunities.

We thank all of our fabulous partners for making Treehouse a reality. We appreciate all of the wonderful donors, both individuals and foundations, who find the work that Treehouse is doing worthy of your financial support. With your continued help we will continue to honor and respect all of our children by providing them with life-long families and community connections.

True Story

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True Story: 10 years ago TODAY I became a foster parent and my life changed in the most wonderful ways! I just got off the phone with our youngest daughter’s grandmother. Reviewing the lessons learned over the past decade with her brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart!

Becoming a foster parent and then choosing to adopt our daughter and expand our family has been one of the best life decisions I have ever made. The journey has been powerful, exciting, fun, intense, and humbling. My life has been enriched in a myriad of ways. I am a more compassionate person as a result of this set of experiences.

My extended family has grown to include my daughter’s family, my Treehouse family, my Sibling Connections family, and all of the wonderful supporters and visionaries I have met along the way. Just check out all of the smiling faces on this blog and you’ll see why I am grateful we picked up the phone and called to inquire about how to become foster parents and dedicate our life to creating new realities for young people who experience foster care in America!

Tyler Harlow’s Ride Across America

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Riding across America in 55 days is no small feat, but then Tyler Harlow is no small dreamer. On April 15th, Tyler – a third year volunteer counselor at Camp To Belong Massachusetts – began his epic bicycle journey from Boston to San Francisco to raise money for Camp To Belong MA and awareness about the importance of keeping sibling connections intact for the 800,000 young people placed in the public foster care system.

Tyler is truly an inspiration to us all. His love of the kids, his dedication to our year-round sibling connection initiative, and his willingness to get out there and share his passion with the country is the highest honor he can bestow upon siblings who have been separated. His actions shout, “You are worthy of our time and investment!” It doesn’t get any better than that…

On April 16th, at the end of his second day on the road, he cycled down Button Road and onto Treehouse Circle. CTB MA campers, CTB MA counselors, and Treehouse community members cheered and waved colorful signs, banners and pom poms.

After giving him a Hero’s Welcome, we ate pizza, played some of our favorite camp games, and celebrated his birthday with some delicious birthday cake before sending him on his way with our very best wishes!

Check out these photos. They capture the essence of CTB MA and show why a young man would hop on his bike and ride 3,000 miles to help kids create some joyous shared memories with their siblings. This is a group of really fun counselors!

Go to siblingconnections.com to find out how you can support Tyler’s Ride Across America!

In Our Backyard Children’s Campaign

The In Our Backyard Children’s Campaign is actively collaborating with individuals and organizations across the country to bring about a re-envisioning of foster care in America.

We are building a national movement to inspire a new era of engagement that benefits children who experience foster care in America. In Our Backyard is a campaign that honors the lives of children with no power and no voice. It is a campaign that builds foundations, connections, and futures. Join us as we embark upon a national re-envisioning of foster care.

Imagine
An America where people of all ages unite and take responsibility for our children’s futures. An America that invests in the lives
of our most vulnerable citizens. An America that believes all lives have equal worth. An America where we embrace all of the children in our backyards to ensure that each one has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

In Our Backyard Vision
In Our Backyard represents a vision – Invite people of all ages to become engaged resources to children who experience foster care. Create a trained national service corps to support that engagement. Give them an array of innovative year-round program models to get involved with. Surround our country’s vulnerable children with great role models and resources. Re-invent the way we care for the 800,000 children who have been placed in our nation’s public foster care system.

Root Cause
Every year as many as 25,000 young people experiencing foster care turn 18 and “age out” of the public foster care system in this country without any 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 one to count on.

There is a disconnect between children experiencing foster care and the majority of Americans. Why?
Currently most Americans think that there are only two ways they can support a child in the public foster care system:

1. Become a foster parent
2. Adopt a child from the foster care system.

This is too much to ask of most people. The outcome: hundreds of thousands of potential people resources walk away from the children who need them the most. The end result: 25,000 young people who are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, early parenthood, and lives of poverty….. lives of poverty “age out” annually unprepared to live outside of the foster care system. Americans continue to support them with their tax dollars rather than celebrating their transition into a productive healthy young adulthood. The In Our Backyard solution: Surround each child in foster care with family and community members who are invested in their life-long success and well-being. Create a broader pool of potential family and community connections through new programs that invite volunteers in to form healthy relationships with kids on the front end of their foster care experiences rather than waiting until they turn 18.

The In Our Backyard Solution
Create a compelling Menu of Engagement Options to better serve our country’s most vulnerable children – exciting new programs that invite people of all ages to participate, connect, care, and take an active role in our country’s re-envisioning foster care process. Programs that In Our Backyard’s visionary leader, Judy Cockerton, has already begun: Treehouse Communities, the Big Red Barn Animal Therapy Program, Treehouse Arts & Learning Project, Sibling Connections, Community and School Garden Programs.

Cockerton has more program designs in the works. Her idea is to gather a stellar multi-disciplinary team of social venture capitalists and out of the box thinkers together to complete the Menu and then launch a multi-generational trained service corps to assist in its implementation nationwide.

In Our Backyard proposes a transformation of the way Americans support children who experience the foster care system as well as an expansion of service opportunities for people of all ages and from every socioeconomic group. The IOB campaign will help instill a culture of engagement with children experiencing foster care and provide opportunities for Americans to serve our most vulnerable children throughout their lifetimes.

In Our Backyard Strategies for Re-Envisioning Foster Care
Key Strategies for the campaign include:

• Launching and sustaining new replicable program models.
• Expanding menu of engagement and service opportunities.
• Engaging students of all ages – elementary thru college.
• Partnering with colleges and universities.
• Offering In Our Backyard on-line courses.
• Cultivating non-traditional public-private partnerships.
• Educating Americans about the everyday realities children who experience foster care face.
• Inspiring Americans to re-think and re-design our approach.
• Encouraging Americans to think out of the foster care box.
• Providing America’s elders with opportunities to serve.
• Funding innovative programs and practices.
• Replicating promising programs and practices.
• Measuring outcomes of expanded service delivery and citizen service opportunities.
• Taking a collaborative multi-disciplinary approach in order to create lasting social change.

The campaign aims to make serving children who experience foster care a new norm. The stigma and disrespect that children in the public foster care system typically face will be replaced with responsive and humane programming as well as life long family and community connections.

Foster Care: The Upgrade

How do we create a foster care system that we can actually be proud of? A more intelligent and humane approach of caring for our vulnerable youth in all 50 states – one that invites us all to participate and empowers each of us to be the change.

The Obama campaign certainly provided us with a template for how to upgrade the system, using technology and community organizing techniques that brought new definition to the term “old school”. The Obama Team’s brilliant engagement strategy married technology and entrepreneurial spirit with the social change process and look how many people jumped on board the Hope Train.

At its core was a transformational vision that calls for an informed and involved digitally actualized group of people to become an integral part of the solution. As Marshall Ganz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government said after the election, “You don’t just put that genie back in the bottle. There are millions of people across the country who were part of this campaign, and they aren’t just going to disappear.”

That’s just what we need to upgrade the way we as a country approach child welfare. We need those millions of people, who were active in supporting President Obama, to take all of that fabulous Yes, We Can energy and aim it at the public foster care system. Imagine what a difference that would make to the lives of 800,000 stigmatized young people who are typically considered unworthy of our time and investment. It will be a piece of cake if we use the brilliant new electoral model that the Obama Team and engaged Americans co-created.

Check out the February issue of San Francisco magazine. In an article titled, Democracy: the upgrade. It describes how the Bay Area’s news-breaking bloggers, visionary VC’s, Web 2.0 geniuses, and ordinary citizens helped Obama remake U.S. politics. As a native of the Bay Area who moved to Boston in the 1970s, I read about my west coast counterparts with pride. They are thinking and acting out of the box, that’s for sure. Just look at Craigslist, Google, Salon, Moveon.org, Facebook, Next Agenda, Barackobamaisyournewbicycle.com and all of the other smart tools and engagement options.

We all know that it takes a thoughtfully crafted idea, a good strategy, clear vision, a passionate leader, and an experienced management team to successfully begin to bring about social change. It also takes dedication, determination, and a willingness to walk in the desert upon occasion. I have certainly felt that hot sand underneath my feet over the past 10 years!

As venture capitalist Andy Rappaport says in the February San Francisco magazine article, “So what are we going to do to change that? If you’re here in the Silicon Valley, the answer is, you try a bunch of experiments. Then you invest in the ones that work, scale them up, kill the ones that don’t. I’ve just described venture capital to you. So a few donors and activists – some here and some elsewhere – figured let’s throw a bunch of money and energy and ideas at the problem and see what we can come up with. Let’s see, for example if we can figure out how to get young people engaged.” Ah, Andy Rappaport, you are my kind of philanthropist. A man who is willing to take a risk to bring about the kind of change this country needs. Look what you helped transform…. Please contact me so we can create a dynamic team to transform our approach to foster care.

While we move forward to solidify our funding options for this endeavor, here are some key actions we need to take:

• Create a synergy between online and offline engagement options.
• Communicate our core values and ideas again and again.
• Encourage freewheeling, interconnected social networking.
• Tap into the creativity of artists, musicians, actors, educators, the advertising world, writers, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs
• Fuel citizen journalism to educate the country and promote participation.
• Use innovative technologies and web applications.
• Use multiple social networks.
• Get America blogging about foster care solutions.
• Circulate hope, new ideas, and inspiration.
• Promote a spirit of empowerment that doesn’t require anyone’s permission.
• Generate a cascade effect: use online organizing to break through old ceilings.
• Create a local and constantly connected Re-Envisioning Foster Care campaigns.
• Work outside the system to enhance the work of child welfare.
• Partner with the system to support change.

Thanks San Francisco magazine for making my day. Great article!

Because of you, John

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The February 2nd issue of the New Yorker magazine reported that after he was sworn in as 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama honored John Lewis – Georgia’s eleven-term representative, and the only surviving speaker from the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his eloquent “I Have A Dream” speech.

“After absorbing the thudding roar from the Mall, Obama glanced to his right. He spotted there on the steps, a few feet away, John Lewis ….. “Congratulations Mr. President,” Lewis whispered in his ear. Obama smiled at the sound of that and said, Thank you, John. I’ll need your prayers.” “You’ll have them, Mr. President. That, and all my support.”

John Lewis’ caliber of support is legendary. He led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. The state troopers on the other side of the bridge used whips, a hose wrapped in barbed wire, horses, and nightsticks to punish Lewis and his colleagues who crossed the bridge that day. The first nightstick came down on John Lewis’ skull.

The Civil Rights Movement was lucky to have John Lewis as one of its leaders. The Foster Care Re-Envisioning Movement needs someone of his caliber to help usher in a new era for children in this country – a bold visionary who believes it is time to erase the stigma of a foster care placement and makes it happen.

Lewis has said about our country’s current problems, “…the problems are so big. None of them can be solved in a day or a year. That’s the way it was with the civil rights movement. We play our part and fulfill our role.” Let us each find our parts and play our roles – for our children and our country.

The New Yorker says that “At the luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony, Lewis approached President Obama with a commemorative photograph and asked him to sign it. The President wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”

Thank you John Lewis for the part you played in moving our country forward. May thousands of Americans follow your outstanding example and take the necessary steps required to ensure that our nation’s children live with dignity.

Indra’s Net

Recently I read an article titled, “The Gift – Living a Life of Purpose and Meaning by Stephen Cope. He’s the Director of Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living. The premise of the article is “Each of us is born with a unique gift – and a sacred duty to fulfill its promise.” It asks us to consider living as a “soul awake in this lifetime”.

In his article, Cope refers to Indra’s Net. I first heard about Indra’s Net when I was in college. It inspired me to really pay attention to what Cope refers to as what life looks like “when a human being functions on all cylinders – body, mind, and spirit.” Ultimately, the Indra’s Net theory led me to become a foster parent, adoptive parent, social entrepreneur, and full time child advocate.

Cope writes about what it would mean for us to consider one of the central archetypes of the yoga tradition – the fully alive human being. He says,

“There is a lot of yogic lore about the process of living fully – and there is one piece of lore that I find very helpful. Yogis believed that every human being is born with a special gift. This gift, for each of us, is like the doorway to a fulfilled life. It is the doorway to our own particular path, our vocation, our calling – our sacred duty. Yogis called this vocation our dharma. All of life is seen as an opportunity to realize and manifest this unique calling – this unique dharma.

Early yogis had a beautiful way of thinking about the importance of the gift. For these yogis, the whole world was seen as a vast net woven together in space and time – not unlike our notion of the quantum field. This was called Indra’s Net, and at the intersection of each warp strand and woof strand of this net is a jewel. This jewel represents an individual human soul. And it is that soul’s duty – sacred calling – to hold together its particular part of the web by being its own unique jewel-like self. In this way, the whole universe holds together as one great interlocking field. But it only hangs together if each one of us plays our particular role, enacts our unique dharma. It only works if each one of us is completely and authentically ourselves. It only works if each one of us is completely who we were born to be.

I like this image a lot. It honors each individual soul’s idiosyncratic gift and relates it to the thriving of the whole. And it underscores… the idea that not only do we each have a gift but we each have a profound responsibility to that gift. Our task, says the great Jungian psychologist Carol Pearson, is to take ownership of our gift, and to trust that its full manifestation is precisely what the world most needs from us.”

Holding together my little corner of the warp and woof of space and time in Indra’s Net gives me great joy. Why wouldn’t it? It’s full of fabulous kids, adults who think out of the box, and exciting new possibilities…

New Year’s Resolutions

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Happy New Year! Got that paper and pen handy? Ready to begin improving your life and the world?

Recently I read an article titled, “What is on Your Not To Do List for 2009?” One person wrote, “ I’m not going to go on another diet, climb Mt. Everest, learn Mandarin, make my bed every day, learn how to iron properly, or line my kitchen drawers. I will however, overlook my husband’s inability to fold towels, take my dogs to the beach more often, and be less judgmental.”

I love that list! It feels so authentic and manageable. It made me laugh. I am not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. I prefer a daily practice to a yearly one. But I could get into making this list because its Irreverent, reality based, and laced with humor. Something we could all use more of.

I began making my Not To Do List and am thoroughly enjoying myself. My family is involved in the process and we are all getting a kick out of defining what it is we do want by first identifying what it is we will not invest time and energy in.

Imagine what a great year this could be… Here’s to 2009! May we all grow, prosper, and find joy, connection, and peace in our relationships, our families, and our communities. May Treehouse and Sibling Connections flourish and find all of the fiscal support they need in order to benefit the lives of those they serve. And may each child whose life has been impacted by a foster care experience be surrounded by goodness and grace.

Kimberly’s Cookies

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When winter rolls around at our house we saunter over to my kitchen drawer and pull out our favorite cookie recipe. Then we go to the store and stock up on Teddy’s peanut butter and Hershey’s Kisses. That’s how we know the season has officially begun.

This delicious peanut butter cookie recipe came to us by way of our dear friend and family member, Kimberly McClure.
It arrived at our house on December 7, 2003 in an email titled “Eat Yummy Cookies!” The email said, “All of our holiday parties were canceled this weekend so we gave away most of our goodies to the fire fighters who were shoveling out the hydrants in the neighborhood. Too hard to have all of those tasty treats around.”

Tasty treats indeed… Chocolate chip cookies with various embellishments had been our family favorite until we tried this recipe. Now it’s “Kimberly’s Cookies”. When my daughter recently flew home for the holidays I smiled when I overheard her telling my sister we were whipping up a batch of “Kimberly’s Cookies” for the neighbors. They have become a family legacy.

Here it is. The recipe is delicious as is but we find using crunchy peanut butter and adding a few chocolate chips to the dough gives you a salty, crunchy, sweet experience that is not to be missed! I have to admit that next to eating these yummy morsels, my favorite part is placing a Hershey’s Kiss on top of each one right after they come out of the oven…

1 ¼ Cups of Peanut Butter
1 Cup Butter
¾ Cups White Sugar
¾ Cups Packed Brown Sugar
2 Eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla

2 ¼ Cups of All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder

1.    Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2.    In a large bowl, cream together peanut butter, butter,
both sugars. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine
the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Stir into
the peanut butter mixture. Add chocolate chips if
you are so inclined!

3.     Form dough into walnut sized spoonfuls and place
on ungreased cookie sheet.

4.     Bake for 12 – 15 minutes. Allow to cool 3 minutes
before transferring to wire rack.

Munch slowly with a glass of cold milk…

Shared Memories

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How cool is it to wake up on Christmas morning and say to your sister, “Let’s go see if  Santa came!” This year one of my daughter’s little sisters, who lives in a different home, was able to come and spend Christmas with us. It was an amazing gift for us all.

On Christmas Eve they came home from a Christmas party and helped set out Santa’s tray with cookies, milk
and carrots for the reindeer. The tray had a pretty sign that said, “Merry Christmas Santa!”

As they were going to bed on their conversation was full of excitement. It went like this:
“Was that a reindeer?”
“No. I think it was Santa’s sleigh.”
“Didn’t you say that we have to be asleep before Santa will come?”
“OK. We’d better go to sleep now.”

In the morning, our daughter woke up and said, “Oh my gosh! It’s Christmas morning! Wake up! Let’s go see if Santa came!”

As they rushed down the stairs to see if there were presents with their names on them, joy radiated through the house. They found a pile under the tree and rushed back up to tell us the good news. Then they rushed back down to check on the stockings. It was 7 AM.

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” I thought as I pulled on my pants and headed downstairs to pour glasses of juice and fix our Christmas morning tray. My husband put on soft Christmas morning music and made a fire in the fireplace while the girls joyfully sorted through the gifts.

When the stage had been set, we each chose a couch and/or chair and took turns opening presents. There was a lots of gratitude in that circle and it stayed with us all day long as we visited additional family members, went to the movies, and dined on Chinese food with friends.

At night we were all ready to climb into bed, read stories, and share Christmas highlights. Each of us had our own special memories. Each of us had a good story to tell. The common element in our stories: siblings. Creating shared memories with them made the holiday truly memorable.

Holiday Wishes

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Big snowstorm coming down!
They say 10 – 12 inches of white powder.
A definite
White Christmas,
Snowy Hanukkah,
Candlelight Kwanzaa,
Silvery Solstice, and
Feliz Three Kings Day Celebration…

As I ponder all of the wonderful ways to
create joyous family memories this year, in between
trips outside to shovel the driveway, I see
the celebrating has already begun. There is
nothing like snow to bring out the neighborhood
collection of colorful sleds. You can hear the squeals
of delight as the kids climb aboard and head downhill..
Then there are the snow angels and assorted snow people
and animals lined up for all to see.

Entryways are lined with:
Boots
Hats
Mittens
Scarves
Snow Pants

And, oh what fun it is to come
inside and put your cold hands
around a cup of hot chocolate
and pick up a homemade cookie
to munch on in front of the fireplace
while you thaw out.

I had the gift of coming inside after my
third round of morning shoveling, to find
a hot cup of tea and a heartfelt
Christmas wish in my mailbox waiting for me.

The Christmas wish was from
a very dear friend and mentor – a wise woman
who has taught me so many valuable lessons about
how to be a stellar “every day mommy” to someone
who has a “tummy mommy and birth family” she loves
and wishes she could live with.

It said:

“Dear God:
The lady reading this
is beautiful, classy and
strong, and I love her.
Help her live her life to the fullest.
Please promote her and cause her to excel above her expectations.
Help her shine in the darkest places where it is impossible to love.
Protect her at all times, lift her up when she needs you the most, and
let her know when she walks with you, she will always be safe.”

The message brought tears of appreciation to my eyes.
It is such a gift to be seen and honored. I wish it for
everyone on this beautiful snowy day – those of us
who are young, those of us who are old, and those
of us who are young at heart.

Double Digits

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Remember turning 10? I do! Double digits…

Tomorrow is my youngest daughter’s birthday and we started celebrating early so we can make sure to include every family member possible.

This celebration started in August at Camp To Belong MA at our camp wide birthday party with her big brother. It resumed in November when we went to Bugaboo’s with her big sister. Kissing the moose has become an annual tradition!

Last week at Sibling Sunday we paid homage to everyone who has a December birthday so she was able to celebrate with two siblings over snow people sundaes. On Friday we went out to dinner. Tonight we will honor the birthday girl with a neighborhood fiesta. Tomorrow, on her actual birthday, we’ll wind things up!

While this would have been over the top for my two children by birth, it feels just right for my daughter who was placed in foster care at 4 months of age. Keeping all of her family connections intact is critical to her health and well-being. Interestingly enough, this cannot be accomplished by one party for the simple reason that not everyone in her family knows each other.

This is common in families where siblings are separated when removed from their homes and placed in foster care. This may seem complex to folks who have not experienced foster care adoption, but as I search the internet for the best chocolate frosting recipe ever, it simply feels what you do to celebrate your child’s double digit birthday!

Happy Holly Daze!

For almost 20 years I spent the month of December in my toy stores, listening to the latest Hanukkah and Christmas tunes while chatting with customers and wrapping beautiful gifts. Some days I would wrap for 8 hours straight. My big kids grew up in the stores and I carried my little one around in a Baby Bjorn carrier when she was 6 months old. What a great place to raise kids!

Every Christmas Eve, while my husband and kids engaged in an annual Yankee Swap at a friend’s house, I put on my favorite music and wandered around the store, carefully choosing toys for my kids and then slowly wrapping them. Some people love hanging out in kitchens creating fabulous meals. I loved hanging out in my toy stores, surrounded by beautiful toys, stuffed animals and dress up clothes creating a shopping experience!

These days, while fundraising 24/7, I find myself wishing that the lovely customer who showed up every year on Christmas Eve with a shoe box full of cash would appear at my door like the Millionaire and wish me a Merry Christmas. Or, that I would win tonight’s Mass Millions prize. I bought some tickets just in case she doesn’t show up…

The Power of Partnership

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It’s been a busy fall. We put the Treehouse Community Garden to bed, Hope and her team of Garden Keepers went apple picking, made homemade applesauce and built new garden benches. We celebrated our second birthday with a fiesta and community dinner. A sock hop is in the works.
Our days are full of new programs, great opportunities, and caring connections. Life on Treehouse Circle is buzzing with opportunities. On Tuesdays and Thursdays people are gathering for our the Treehouse Arts and Learning Project – a fabulous new program made possible by the generosity of one woman. It’s a perfect example of the kind of magic that happens when donors come together at Treehouse to think out of the foster care box. Just like we experienced in the garden this past spring!
One hot summer morning, I received a phone call from a friend of Treehouse. She said she had an idea. She wanted to support learning at Treehouse; to inspire and motivate kids to learn through the arts and drama. We were thrilled with the idea. She chose two outstanding partners for us: Snow Farm and the Enchanted Circle Theatre. An experienced teacher with a love of kids was hired. Resident Artists were lined up. Kids and families attended an Orientation. We had a blast! I knew this program was going to be really special.
Now 5th – 9th graders living at Treehouse are thoroughly enjoying themselves twice a week as they actively experience the arts. Thanks to the vision of one amazing funder a new program is being piloted. Evaluations are in process. Parents, Treehouse staff, and elders have joined in the fun. It’s definitely a win-win-win. We are seeking funding to help the program evolve. Adults and kids are definitely learning.
The first session of the ALP, our theme is “I”. The winter session will move outward and focus on “We”. The spring session will take the kids outward to “Community” and we’ll visit Snow Farm and observe artists at work in their studios as well as give the kids opportunities to explore arts of their choice. The Grand Finale: A play that the kids will write and perform on a stage out in the community.
Watching the kids being exposed to poetry, photography, drawing and journal writing over the past few weeks, while becoming better acquainted with themselves, is a gift that comes to Treehouse thanks to the goodness of one person who believes in our mission. The excitement that happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays comes to Treehouse through the power of partnership. Support and partnership – two essential ingredients to the success of our collaborative Treehouse Approach!

We Are Family

Shrieks of laughter!

S’mores

Roasting hot dogs over a camp fire

Morning wake-up dances

Lots of singing

Face painting

Balloon hats

Decorating birthday cupcakes

Designing sibling pillows

Harvey and Tyler in the Dunk Tank

Cotton candy

Popcorn

Bus trips to Topsy’s

Water volleyball

Bouncing on the Rave

Arthur’s evening slide shows

Taking pictures

Making scrapbooks

 

Our fourth season of Camp To Belong MA just came to a close… Joy and laughter filled the Berkshire air all week long as the campers played together in the pools, lake, riding ring and on the trapeze, banana boats and climbing wall.

 

85 sisters and brothers spent fun-filled days together creating shared memories. 45 outstanding volunteers, ages 20 – 64, generously gave the kids

their all from sun up to sun down. We experienced the best kind of connection – at camp, between generations, with friends and family members who truly care about one another.

 

Most Americans think there are only two ways they can support children who experience foster care: by becoming a foster or adoptive parent. This great

summer sibling connection program and our stellar volunteers of all ages demonstrate a new way to become engaged. They show us innovative options that support kids experiencing foster care in very meaningful ways.

 

Check out the photos!  Watch the slide show. We are re-thinking and re-envisioning America’s engagement possibilities. Now that this season of camp is over and we are heading into fall, we are planning our monthly year-round program, Sibling Sundays. We’ve got a larger group of volunteers, great ideas, and committed partners with us as we enter the new year.

 

Stay tuned! We’ll continue sharing our learning and Arthur Pollock’s beautiful photos with you as the year progresses!

 

Fireworks

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Every year on the 4th of July neighbors from my small community gather on the shores of the town’s lake to celebrate our nation’s birth and witness a half hour of awesome fireworks; fireworks that are so beautiful they take your breath away. Roads are closed and townsfolk set up chairs on the beach and in the middle of the road to oooh and ahhh.

The magic of this night never wavers for me. For the past 21 years we have sat with friends and family members who have enjoyed a nice barbeque before meandering down the street to the lake for this annual tradition. We claim a space, sit down, and tilt our heads back so we can savor each and every moment of the spectacular display of light and color in the sky above.

As the fireworks pop, boom, and fizzle above us people holler out their appreciation.

“This is so much better than Disneyworld!”

“Oh, I love those gold ones!”

“Wow! That is SO beautiful,”

“They just get better every year!”

“I wish I could have these at my wedding.”

“Oh, that’s a new kind!”

While we were enjoying the amazing visual display above us this year, I thought of the children I know for whom fireworks are not a source of such happiness. Kids whose families create alternative plans so that their loud sounds do not trigger feelings of anxiety. Kids who have experienced what some call “challenging beginnings.”

Their parents inspire me. They make alternative plans that change every year as their children move toward health and well-being. I know families who watch fireworks from cars parked far away so their children can enjoy the spectacle without any sound, folks whose kids watch from inside their homes wearing headphones, dads and kids who stand side by side outside of their cars to watch just in case they need to make a quick getaway, and moms who take their kids to playgrounds with their iPods on so they can all enjoy the fireworks in a way that feels safe.

Kudos to those courageous kids and stellar parents who think outside the Fourth of July fireworks box. I love your creativity, humanity, and innovative spirit. Thank you for creating safe ways for kids to experience this American celebration with safety nets that honor each child’s needs and for modeling collaborative problem solving at its best!

Busloads of Visitors

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Last year a bus full of people from all over the country came to visit Treehouse. They were all attending the annual Co-Housing Conference in Boston. It was our first busload of visitors since we opened in June 2006.

I was the official Treehouse greeter, welcoming people as they got off the bus and came into the Community Center. We all moved into the Gathering Space where we celebrate all of our community activities: birthdays, teas, pot lucks, artistic events, adoption parties, and so much more.. After people settled in at our 8 round tables I shared The Treehouse Story.

The audience was inspired and asked wonderful questions. One lovely woman from Utah came back to visit a few months later and decided to move to Treehouse. She will be a great community member: engaged, interested in living in an intentional multigenerational neighborhood, friendly, open, child-centered, and completely aligned with our mission and vision.

Today the bus pulled up again. I stood at the front door of the Community Center and welcomed folks as they stepped off under the portico. After we settled into the Gathering Space I began to share the Treehouse Story. As I was talking, the power of this remarkable 10 year journey hit me in a way that it never had before. Maybe it was how much we had grown as a community over the past year. Perhaps the reality of what we had accomplished rang true in a new way. Whatever the reason, standing in front of this attentive audience sharing our Treehouse history moved me deeply.

I started from the very beginning – the evening when my husband handed me the newspaper article about a little 5 month old baby being kidnapped from his crib in broad daylight. I wove in vignettes from 1998 – 2008, all the way to yesterday’s Iced Tea Party.

I thought about all of the learning that Treehouse has provided us with. I thought about all of the fabulous people who have showed up on the journey. Then all of the generosity, kindness, grace, flexibility and support that I have been the recipient of. I thought about the kids, their families, Treehouse elders, our partners, board members, the volunteers, and our stellar Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead.

It has taken vision, dedication, tenacity, and determination to bring this vision to fruition. And we did it! We launched, lived through the first two years, and are now beginning to think about the possibilities of home ownership and scalability.

I love our annual visit from the Co-Housing Tour. People come in curious and go away inspired. They encourage me to continue the work and stay focused on the prize – the well-being of children. When they leave I wish another bus would pull up so I could continue sharing the story about how one five month old baby boy inspired the engagement of so many people.

Summer’s Here

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Memorial Day in New England means a season change. It signals the beginning of summer, the season of outdoor celebration that promptly ends on Labor Day. Since it is such a short and pleasurable time of year people make the most of it.

After the long winter, it is always wonderful to see people outside using bikes, boats, pools, beaches, and local parks. Grills are lit, picnics packed, and sunscreen slathered on extra thick for summer protection.

In New England people head north to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, south to the Cape, east to the beaches, and west to the Berkshires. It doesn’t matter which direction you head in, you will find summer fun wherever you go. Folks stuck in Boston hop on ferries to visit the Harbor Islands or head over to Castle Island.

Summer is garden season as well. Time to plant, tend, and harvest. At Treehouse our Community Garden is undergoing a transition And we are all delighted with the changes. Thanks to the support of some visionary funders, Treehouse community members of all ages have begun to dig, plant, sow, and water. Guided by our good friend and teacher, Hope Guardenier, our collective vision is becoming reality.

Newly built raised beds allow friends and neighbors in wheelchairs to actively participate in all Treehouse gardening activities. Last week a group of kids and adults filled the raised beds with compost and soil and built 2 gourd structures. They look like tipis without fabric. Each day something new and exciting takes place.

The Treehouse Community Garden is a real gift – a place of healing, learning, sharing, and gathering. You can feel its positive energy as you walk across the meadow toward the line of festive scarecrows. Mt. Tom rises in the background making an impressive backdrop. There are folks seated at the garden table chatting. There are community members of all ages participating in today’s garden activity: kids and adults sitting on the grass making garden flags, teens eating watermelon, Hope with her beautiful baby strapped to her chest raking the soil in one of the newly filled raised beds.

We can’t wait for our friends, Mary Beth and Gram, to come back from Florida and join our garden adventure. Mary Beth is known for taking what the garden provides and teaching us how to prepare it in new and exciting ways. Last summer our community kitchen was filled with kids and adults working side by side, preparing delicious samples for everyone to try. Mary Beth moved gracefully from kitchen to table offering us new possibilities – baked sweet potato fries, scrumptious salads, delicious soups.

Our Treehouse garden is a place of growth and possibilities. A space where we can all flourish over the summer and meet up in the fall for our annual Soup Off! Here’s to Memorial Day, summer, and the good people at Treehouse. May we enjoy this season and one another in the best ways possible!

African Drums

Last week we gathered under a big white tent to celebrate my daughter’s college graduation. Friends, family members, faculty, and a student body of smart young women were launched out into the world with the blessings of their own personal communities gathered from around the country. Similar celebrations of academic achievements and life passages were taking place all over the country.

The morning began with African drummers. Their powerful music filled the tent as the students and faculty began their way toward us. People of all ages began swaying in anticipation of the graduates’ arrival. When their caps and gowns became visible, a hush came over the crowd. When the diverse group of young women entered the tent, whoops of joy filled the air. The mood was festive and joyful.

One of my favorite memories was when the first young woman walked across the stage to receive her diploma. As the college president reached out to offer her congratulations, the graduate’s father rose from his seat and exclaimed, “Thank you Lord!” We all laughed, appreciating the sentiment. There was similar laughter when a group of proud brothers stood and proclaimed, “That’s MY sister!” This was a graduation ceremony full of joy, goodwill, family, friends, and lots of love – just the kind of celebration every young person deserves as she/he is heading out into the world.

Afterwards there was a luncheon on the lawn and the opportunity for family and friends to take photographs. As I look at the myriad of photos on my husband’s laptop, I am struck by the profound importance of being surrounded by a community of people who believe in you, support you, and want the best for you; people who stand up and cheer when you walk across the stage of life.

When they are infants, we hold our young babies in our arms and stand in awe of their potential, and all of the possibilities that life holds for them. If they are children of wealth, they are given every possible opportunity to experience, engage, and to savor a rich array of life experiences. If they are children of poverty it’s a different story.

Children of poverty who experience foster care need us to understand that the most important things we can do in this country is look at life in the public foster care system though their eyes. To pay attention, to listen, and then to be compelled to act.. They need us to invest in them. Wouldn’t it be amazing accomplishment if the responsible adults in each region of America figured out better ways to get communities of people to surround each child in their neighborhood so that when they walk across “their stage” we will be there cheering, clapping, and calling out, “That’s OUR child!”

Nine Years Ago Today

Nine years ago today I was at work when the phone rang. The call was from the lovely social worker who had done our home study when we applied to become foster parents. My husband and I had just finished her MAPP Training classes the night before. We were now official foster parents.

“Judy, we have two little sisters who we are desperate to keep together,” she said. “They are 5 months old and 17 months old. Would you take them into your home?” I immediately called my husband and phoned her back. “Yes! We would love to open our home to two little sisters.”

“We’ll drop them off at your house in an hour,” she said. “They’ve already been to the doctor and are ready for placement.” “Can I have two hours?” I asked. “I don’t have car seats, high chairs, a crib or any diapers. I need to go pick up my daughter from school. We’ll go shopping on our way home.”

I picked up my 12 year old daughter and told her she was going to be a big sister in a few hours. We drove over to Toys R Us and walked toward the Diaper Wall. Luckily there was a woman standing there who looked like she knew what she was doing. I hadn’t been the parent of an infant for 12 years. I turned to her and asked, “Five months old and seventeen months old?” She smiled and told my daughter to go get another shopping cart. Then she guided us through the store, loading us up with all of the infant/toddler products we needed to welcome the girls to our home. Luckily I owned a specialty toy store so the Play Room in our house was ready and waiting.

We arrived home and removed all of our bags from the car just in time. We looked up and saw the social workers enter the driveway. My husband’s car drove in a few seconds later. We walked up to the social worker. She asked my daughter to open the door for a gorgeous little seventeen month old who looked

up with a bright smile and big brown eyes. “Mom, I think I just fell in love,” I heard as I opened the door on my side of the car and looked into the face of a beautiful little five month old baby girl.

That moment in time is frozen in my memory, just like the births of my 27 and 21 year olds. Memorable and life changing, joyous and profound. On that day nine years ago, I began a new life’s journey with two beautiful little sisters as my teachers and guides. Along the way, my life has been tremendously enriched.

As I watched the girls horse back riding last week, looking so strong and confident in their saddles, I remembered all of the times we said goodnight to the horses when they were little. I remembered the day we went to Drumlin Farm and they fed the skunk a worm they dug up in the potato patch. I remembered the way they leapt into my arms as I stood in the swimming pool, making chocolate chip cookies, and all of the baths they took in the kitchen sink.

As we celebrate this nine year anniversary I am filled with gratitude for the girls, their family, and all that they have taught me. They have inspired me to bring innovation and change into the world of child welfare. They have encouraged me to think outside of the foster care box. They have cheered me on as I raise money to create new national models, collaborate with others to launch innovative programs, and encourage the world to find their lives worthy of investment.

Tonight when I see the first star in the sky, I will send up a wish for all of our children who experience foster care – a wish that they will each have caring adults in their lives who are paying attention to the lessons they have to teach us.Then I will send up a prayer of thanksgiving.

Trot Trot to Boston

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the floor with five little toddlers on my outstretched legs. Their beautiful faces were full of anticipation – eyes wide open, big grins on their faces, waiting for me to begin. I started:

Trot, trot to Boston.
Trot, trot to Lynn.
Trot, trot to Salem.
Oh, Don’t fall in……

I opened my legs and they tumbled into a big heap on the floor, a giggling mass of arms and legs. Then they popped up sweetly shouting, “More! More!”

I think we must have done Trot Trot to Boston at least two dozen times before stopping for a snack. We were having such a good time. The kids were all between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. They were living together in the same foster home just outside of Boston. I was a new foster parent and we were visiting before heading over to the Children’s Museum for the afternoon.

As we sat down at the snack table in the kitchen, I was making friends with the reality that these delicious little children who I was playing with were invisible to most people. I was just beginning to realize that the majority of Americans believe that the lives of children who experience foster care are unworthy of our investment. I was thinking about the outcomes of community disengagement and began to imagine a different future for children who are removed from their homes and placed in our public foster care system.

I glanced around the table. So much beauty, so much potential, so much unadulterated joy….. The future. That was the moment I knew I had to sell my businesses and become a full time child advocate. That was the moment I knew that I had to take my love of children and my life-long passion of collaborating with innovative thinkers to re-design the way we care for our most vulnerable children in America. That was the day when I dedicated myself to blessing the lives of children who experience foster care.

I have no idea where those five little toddlers who played Trot Trot to Boston with me are today. I know how much they inspired me that day and every other time we visited their foster home. I know the role that they have played in the development of the Treehouse Foundation, the Treehouse Community, Sibling Connections, Camp To Belong MA, Sibling Sundays, Birdsong Farm, this blog, the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative, and all of the other innovative programs that are in development. I am deeply grateful to each one of them for the lessons they taught me. I wish them the very best life has to offer and hope that their families are blessing their lives each and every day.

Grace and Flexibility

Walking the dog through our beautiful little neighborhood cemetery is one of my favorite daily rituals. Following the paths as they meander up and down gentle rolling hills fills me with peace. I am always comforted by the cemetery’s thoughtful design and the multitude of trees that line its walkways.

Today as I strolled past a big maple tree sprouting spring buds, I recalled a day this past winter when an ice storm had bent the tree’s branches all the way to the slippery path below. I was in awe of this tall tree’s ability to be so flexible. Not one branch was broken. As my dog and I entered the quiet sanctuary formed by its branches, I was wowed by this awesome display of grace and flexibility and remembered the first time I encountered it in a human relationship. For that I thank Dr. Ross Greene, author The Explosive Child.

Drs. Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon run The Center for Collaborative Problem Solving. The Center provides clinical services, training and consultation to assist parents, educators, mental health and medical professionals in understanding the collaborative problem solving approach. The Center has developed a more humane way of looking at children who experience rigid thinking and chronic frustration. The Center teaches us that the challenges the children face are best understood as by-products of lagging cognitive skills and demonstrates that they are best addressed by teaching children the skills they lack. This is radical thinking.

The collaborative problem solving approach asks adults that might be living and working with children who experience rigid thinking, to embrace grace and flexibility in a whole new way. CPS allows adults to transition to a place of partnership with a child in order to move beyond rigid adult thinking that can often set kids up for frustration and failure. Teaching the kinds of cognitive skills that children who experience chronic frustration require involves three basic steps:

1. Empathy/Reassurance: to identify and understand the child’s concern about a given issue and to reassure her or him that imposition of adult will is not how the problem will be resolved.
2. Define the Problem: to identify the adults’ concerns about the same issue.
3. The Invitation: to invite the child to brainstorm solutions together with the adult, with the ultimate goal of agreeing on a plan of action that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory – creating a win/win situation.

These three steps are not that complicated. Last night I observed a parent and child engage in collaborative problem solving at my daughter’s school. A parent was picking up his child who appeared agitated. He jumped up on his dad and hollered, “ I’m starving! Can we go for pizza? I’m starving! I want to go to Bertucci’s right now!” The parent wanted to go home and change his clothes. He said quietly, “ You want pizza now. You are starving.” The boy nodded his head. The dad said, “You want pizza now. I would like to go home and change my clothes and then go have pizza. What do you think we should do?”

This simple statement and follow up question demonstrated to the boy that his dad was not interested in controlling the situation. It showed that he was listening and willing to be flexible. In fact, he was modeling flexible thinking skills. He had an idea in his head but wanted to hear his son’s thoughts on the subject. He was like the tree in the cemetery – full of grace and flexibility.

The boy who had been ready for a struggle, looked his dad in the eye and said, “Dad, I haven’t had anything to eat except a bag of pretzels and juice since lunch. How about if we eat pizza first this time and next time you can go home and change first next time?” The dad responded with, “You are really hungry. I have a bag of popcorn in the car. Can you eat that now so you are not so terribly hungry? Then I can quickly drive home and change.” The boy said, “Mom doesn’t like me to eat filler foods. I think I need dinner.” The dad ruffled the kid’s hair, laughed, and said, “OK. That’s a good point. Let’s go eat first. I can do that!” Instead of disintegrating into a polarizing public spectacle, this situation spiraled up. The boy and his dad went out the door laughing. It was a win-win.

Just think: in addition to developing skills that are crucial to learning how to be flexible and tolerate frustration, imagine the trust that this dad was building with his son. CPS is such a powerful tool. I honor what Drs. Greene and Ablon are offering us. It’s a humane and enlightened approach – one that has the potential to help children and adults do well in all areas of their life.

Ubuntu

Affirming the dignity and personhood of each child who has been placed in the public foster care system is the next step in our country’s evolution. Finding new ways to embrace and care for our children and move forward with honesty and compassion is our tomorrow. Erasing the debilitating legacies of poverty, incarceration, joblessness, dismal educational outcomes, and homelessness is the first step.

We are a nation of communicators. But it seems that what we communicate about most often does not always lead to connection. Disconnection is the outcome. It has allowed us to step into our class, race, gender, and age roles and lead compartmentalized lives. The result: we have become a nation separated from each other and from the essence of our humanity. We have lost our individual and collective ubuntu.

I was first introduced to the concept of ubuntu in Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness. Ubuntu is a South African word from the Bantu language family. According to Tutu:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather, “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the summum bonum – the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success though aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

”My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours.”

“A person is a person through other persons.”

“I am human because I belong.”

These three sentences show us how to honor one another in the best ways possible. They encourage us to replace the huge gap between children who experience foster care and their peers who have not with equal opportunity. They urge us to dedicate ourselves to erasing the enormous disparities between the rich and the poor and to dismantle all of the ways that we keep poverty and racism alive. They show us that when we eradicate the root causes of foster care and strengthen the lives of our most vulnerable children, families, and communities, we will be a people with ubuntu – a people living with the greatest good for all in our hearts and our minds.

Beyond It Takes a Village

Recently I read an article titled, “If It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, How Many Children Does It Take to Raise the Village?” That inspired me to think outside the box. Harry Wilson, author of the article, is the Associate Commissioner for the country’s Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. He encourages all elders to consider creating a new approach to strengthening our villages – one that involves inviting our children and youth into the conversation. Now that’s a win-win-win; for the village, its youth, and the responsible adults who guide them forward.

According to Wilson, “The National Research Council proclaimed recently that 75 percent of American youth are doing quite well, but a quarter of our young people are missing some or all of their protective factors and lack critical developmental assets. As a result, these young people are deemed seriously “at risk”. For these young people, at least, the “village” has not lived up to its commitment.”

This is certainly true for the thousands of youth who quietly “age out” of the public foster care system in this country. Every year when they turn 18, they launch out into the world alone without the resources, skills or connections they need to succeed. One day they are surrounded by an array of supports. The next day they blow out their birthday candles and find themselves with no support at all. Without any safety nets, many end up homeless, unemployed, incarcerated, prone to substance abuse, and stuck in a life of poverty and hopelessness.

The reality is that our children are voiceless and powerless. They do not vote. They count on responsible adults in their “villages” to advocate on their behalf. Some do. Most don’t. When I read Harry Wilson’s article suggesting that we invite our youth into the conversation I began asking, “Who is best qualified to teach us about what our young people are experiencing in foster care in America?” The answer was crystal clear: the children themselves. They can give us the inside perspective that will enable us to assess how healthy our “villages” are. They can help us articulate what is working and what we need to change. They can help us weave reality-based social responsibility into the fabric of our everyday lives.

We have successfully used this inclusive new village model in our sibling connection work. The results of inviting young people into the conversation and spending time listening ripples out into families and communities: social workers change their practice, foster/adoptive parents make sibling connection a priority in their families, and legislators and the public are beginning to understand the important role long connections play in a child’s well-being.

What we are learning is that our children and youth who experience foster care would appreciate additional opportunities to join with the elders in their villages – to forge meaningful relationships, to make sorely needed improvements, to humanize the foster care experience, to educate and inform their village elders about the realities they face every day, and to become valued members of their communities. It would behoove us to invite them in, listen to their stories, and partner with them. Imagine what rich learning will take place if we choose to collaborate with the very children we are seeking to serve.

Harry Wilson states, “When elders welcome young people, accept their fresh perspectives, and tap into their abundant energy, they create a much stronger village. In these enlightened communities young people are celebrated for their citizenship and see themselves as the collective hope for the future. At the end of the day the village and the child are indispensable to one another, are in tune with each other, and will share lifetimes of moving ahead together.” Let’s do it!

Put a Little Love in Your Heart

Yesterday New England experienced a late winter storm. While the weather outside was frightful, inside the Treehouse Community Center, a group of folks were cozy and warm.

We were celebrating birthdays, life, and each other at our monthly tea. Yesterday’s theme: Valentine’s Day. Attending Tea Time at Treehouse means coming down to the Community Center and being treated to delicious sweet and savory treats, lively conversation, and a good cup of your favorite tea. Tea pots, creamers and sugar bowls are lined up on trays next to an array of black, green, white, and herb teas.

Several of us were humming “Put a Little Love in Your Heart!” while placing a mouth watering fruit tart and chocolate mousse cake on their cake plates. “I hope when you decide kindness will be your guide” we sang as we put two-bite brownies on heart plates.

Since it was a “snow day”, the kids were home from school. They were in and out of the kitchen, asking how to say things in Spanish, grabbing a bite between practicing their guitar playing, and talking about whose birthdays would be celebrated in March.

The atmosphere at Tea Time is always warm and friendly. People browse the buffet, make a pot of their favorite tea, and pull up a chair. Folks of all races, ages, interests, and abilities gather to share the moment. Every month different people show up. Life events, news, and the weather determine the course of our conversation. Yesterday people were discussing the births of grandchildren and great grandchildren, how to play “Happy Birthday” on the guitar, the way to make a proper cup of British tea, and the presidential race.

One lovely young teen, who just received her first guitar, entertained us with a song she wrote. I know she felt our collective pride when she finished singing and put her guitar down. Looking back at her were family members, neighbors, and friends. We were clapping enthusiastically.

As Tea Time wound down, a group of teens and adults retired to the Library to watch Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” video on YouTube. Some of the younger kids followed along to use the computers. One mom sat down and took out her needlepoint. We listened to good music, including someone’s cousin who sang a powerful rendition of an old love ballad. I laughed when his aunt said, “I had NO idea he had such a beautiful voice. He never even sings in the car!”

After a while, we headed back to the kitchen to clean up. Kids and adults grabbed brooms, washed dishes, and straightened up. As I was washing off some tables, I could hear one of the kids softly singing, “Put a little love in your heart baby, put a little love in your heart. And the world will be a better place. Thank you Jackie DeShannon!”

Life on Treehouse Circle

Why build an intergenerational neighborhood where families who are adopting children from foster care live with elders? At Treehouse we believe that when families raising children who have experienced foster care live together in an intergenerational village with high quality, stable housing and responsive community supports, it increases the likelihood that children will grow up with enduring family and community relationships that promote their health and well-being, as well as the health and well-being of all of the adults that surround them. A Treehouse parent described it so well:

“Here’s the BIG PICTURE VISION that I have:
I think our vision is … to create a village, a web of people who reach in to offer support and help. Not in a gushy way, but in an instinctively practical way, where we do what’s needed to make life work more easily for the whole. Having the basic assumption be that we are interdependent!

So much in our society is isolated, fragmented, too fast, impermanent; we’re expected to be strong and independent nuclear families, like that’s a natural thing. It’s totally unnatural, when you look at how humans evolved – in interdependent hunter/gatherer groups, banded together for survival and companionship. We’re meant to have all ranges of ages, we’re meant to have the youngest learn from the oldest, and for the oldest to feel renewed with the youngest, to pass down the experience.

I believe it’s the best way to create a wider “clan” and to help kids who’ve been ripped out of their birth context and who have had such a tough start. The analogy I see best is that they are like a piece of fabric that’s been ripped out of its original place in a tapestry – normally, adoptive parents have to simultaneously hold the children and try to weave them into their isolated section, using themselves and their personal network. At Treehouse, we can have parents concentrate on holding the children, while letting the larger community – where we all live and play and walk and see each other in organic contexts – weave a stronger and richer, more textured fabric to secure them in their new place. Many threads make a stronger bond than a few.”

Living and working in such a rich and diverse neighborhood is a remarkable experience. Building trust and relationships, thoughtfully establishing a flexible and responsive neighborhood – that takes time, for both children and adults. The biggest gift: that there are over 100 people living on Treehouse Circle, ranging in age from 1 – 85 years. We are not perfect. We are human. We are in process. That means we are all learning something valuable every day and along the way, lives are being enhanced. I felt it all day yesterday: watching kids and adults playing with hula hoops, folks cooking in the kitchen, people preparing for Saturday’s Bake Sale. Then I experienced it again last night. You should have seen the faces of the elders playing cards! First I heard their laughter. Then I saw their smiles…. People of all ages feeling connected, belonging, sharing their lives. What could be more valuable?

Sibling Reunion

Sibling Sundays is a remarkable year-round program that celebrates the sibling connection. Every month sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care come together to spend the day. At this time of year we go sledding, build snow forts, eat pizza, drink hot chocolate, decorate Valentine cookies, and create a treasure trove of shared childhood memories.

This past week, if you had been with us, you would have seen about 20 sisters and brothers gathered at tables sprinkling colorful decorations on homemade Valentine cookies. The kids were sitting with their sibling groups and counselors, smiles on their faces. Some had pink frosting on their lips.

In their midst sat a brother and a sister who had not seen each other for seven years. Their extended family of adoptive parents, counselors, and another sister were at the table decorating with them. Cookies were being passed back and forth, laughter flowed, and a big brother – little sister relationship was being woven back together. This was a reunion that made my heart sing…

The pain of their separation had a profound impact on this big brother: “That morning I left home and went to school. It was a regular day. I was in the first grade. After school a social worker picked me up and told me I wasn’t going home. My baby sister was in the car. The social worker drove us to a house and stopped the car. She told me to wait. She took my sister’s car seat out and carried her up to the front door of the house. That was the day my little sister disappeared from my life.”

This young man loves his little sister deeply. Over the past seven years he has frequently asked himself the question, “What if I didn’t let the social worker take her from the car?” He did not understand that he was powerless to do anything about his family’s situation. He was a 6 year old in the first grade. He had felt responsible for her well-being long before she was carried to her foster mother’s front door so in his mind, he had allowed her to disappear from his family.

One of his sisters stayed connected to their little sister. He heard through the grapevine that she had been adopted by a wonderful family. He saw some photographs. But he never got to see her or talk with her. He never got to eat breakfast with her, sit next to her in the car, watch TV or celebrate her birthday with her. First grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade. He worried, felt guilty and waited.

On Sunday, when I quietly re-introduced them, she went up to him and gave him a hug. She did not fully understanding who he was. He knew that she did not remember him in the same way that he remembered her – that she did not remember their life together in the same way. He had heard that this was the first of many steps in their relationship building. He hugged her back, took a deep breath, and went on to spend the day with her. He spent time with her adoptive family, experiencing their kindness and love. He shared how nervous he had been that morning before they arrived.

At 4:00 PM, after a day of decorating cookies, sharing pizza, and horseback riding, his little sister began to understand their family situation more fully. Seated in the back seat of the car between her big sister and brother, she asked, “Why was I separated from my family?” The adults in the car began to formulate the most appropriate response. In the meantime, her big sister answered her question in a manner both simple and direct. The little sister listened, nodded, and leaned into her big brother. Then she asked when they were coming to Sibling Sundays again.

Safety, well-being, respectful collaboration, and connection. Common sense and humanity. Blessing the lives around us. We can transform the lives of 800,000 children by weaving appropriate safety nets over, under and around them. We can make it right. Imagine a country where colorful safety nets full of caring people, tremendous opportunities, and an abundance of resources are the norm. Imagine that!