Category Archives: Bird Song Farm

What Are You The Most Proud Of?

082107ctb325

Winning the 2012 Purpose Prize has given me an amazing opportunity. For the past month I have been talking with a group of national reporters about what it takes to inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. What a gift! I discuss the REFCA Initiative and all three non-profit organizations I have established over the past decade: the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm. I hope these interviews inspire widespread investment in foster care innovation.

As I share my story – from the moment I read a newspaper article about a five month old baby who was kidnapped from his foster home in broad daylight in 1998 until today – and answer all of the questions that folks who are new to child welfare might have, I always find myself wanting to spend another hour chatting about the subject. Compressing 15 years of life experience, collaborative social change and innovative investments into a 20 minute interview is a challenge.

Sometimes I’m on my game. Usually I am concise and on point. Then there are other times when I hang up the phone and I look down to discover that my hands are still moving. (Ask anyone who knows me. I talk with my hands alot. I used to teach hearing impaired children so sign language is second nature to me!). I’m not quite done answering their last question…

During an interview today one reporter asked me a great question: “Of all of the work you have done over the past ten years, what is the one thing that you are the most proud of?”

It took me a minute to collect my thoughts. I recalled standing in my toy store in Brookline, MA, rocking my youngest daughter to sleep. This was the moment when I began Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America, the moment when I decided to sell my businesses and focus my attention on flipping the foster care paradigm.

As a foster parent I realized that the model we have been operating from is not working well. It became clear that when we hand over our children in foster care to a government agency to parent and then walk away, the outcomes are not good – for the children, the nation, and our under-resourced child welfare system. The ramifications of not paying attention until something goes wrong were obvious. This societal disconnect seemed to be the root cause of our collective failure to prevent foster care from creating the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

Wrapping my brain around all of this, while learning that every year in this country 25,000 young people “age out” of foster care alone and at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen parenting and lives of poverty, proved to be a powerful catalyst for me to Re-Envision Foster Care in America.

The beautiful baby falling asleep in my arms was another powerful motivator. It was crystal clear that this little one, her siblings and peers who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care deserve to be cherished and surrounded by caring communities of people who invest in their lives on a daily basis.

As my daughter fell asleep, I began thinking about the fact that most Americans believe there are only two ways they can support a child placed in the public foster care system: become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care. This is too much to ask of most people. The result: millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most. That was the moment when my role became apparent. My job: get those people to stop, turn around and come back to the kids.

I knew this could only be accomplished if folks had a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options available to them. Developing this vibrant REFCA Menu became my top priority. I sold my stores and since 2002 have collaborated with visionaries, funders and stakeholders of all ages and backgrounds to create an amazing array of new opportunities in order to better serve children and youth placed in foster care.

Together with this amazing group of collaborative social change agents, I have:

* Established three non-profit organizations for the compelling new REFCA Menu of Engagement Options.
* Invited citizens to become resources to children in their communities.
* Raised over $15 million to invest in foster care innovation.
* Leveraged people, dollar and idea resources to better serve children and youth placed in foster care.
* Sponsored three annual Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America conferences and planned a fourth.
* Created stellar public/private partnerships among non-profits, businesses, colleges, universities and
government agencies.
* Facilitated three regional REFCA Working Groups: Aging Out/Transitions, Education and Permanency.
* Researched best practice regional and national programs.
* Brought people together to create a regional REFCA Road Map and Implementation Plan.
* Consulted with top-notch teams of researchers to track our progress.
* Developed sustained replicable program models that other states can use.
* Shared our learning with others around the country.

This is the work I am the most proud of…collaborating with a group of visionary Americans of all ages and backgrounds to launch a dynamic social change movement designed to create an array of public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy and maximize financial resources to better serve our children and youth placed in foster care.

Making it possible for ordinary citizens to turn around, come back and become resources to youngsters in their communities who need them for an hour, a day, a week or a life time. Weaving a vibrant safety net for our most vulnerable children, our communities and our child welfare system. Giving people many more opportunities to pay attention and plug in. I am proud of helping flip the foster care paradigm!

Passing The Baton

_DSC0095

Happy New Year!

Since 2002 I have partnered with a cohort of fabulous people to help inspire a Re-Envisioning of Foster Care in America. The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative represents a vision: A nation where people of all ages invest their time, treasure and talent to support children and youth who have been removed from their homes and placed in our child welfare system; a country where communities collaborate with social service agencies and everyone prospers—solutions are created, innovations are born and both achieve much more than they ever could alone.

It has been a stellar decade. Collaborating with out-of-the-box thinkers, I have established three non-profit organizations: the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm. Each organization is designed to bring citizens together to stand under the banner of Shared Responsibility. Standing shoulder to shoulder we take the next steps forward to create vibrant public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy, and maximize financial resources in order to better serve our youngsters experiencing foster care.

Together we are building a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so Americans of all ages can become resources to our nation’s children who have been placed in foster care. This is critical because most Americans think there are only two ways to support our nation’s youngsters placed in foster care. Become a foster parent or adopt a child from our child welfare system. This is simply too much to ask of most people. The result: millions of Americans turn and walk away from the children in their communities who need them the most. An innovative Menu of Engagement Options gives folks a whole new set of opportunities; exciting and imaginative ways to help children from coast to coast.

All successful nonprofits begin with visionary leaders who provide the enthusiasm, focus, tenacity and support needed to transform inspiration into dynamic organizations. As nonprofits grow and mature, they need to develop a focused strategic approach to build fiscal capacity and organizational infrastructure. This growth process begins in the start up phase.

As we enter 2013, the Treehouse Foundation, Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm are all in different phases of their growth and development cycles. Each one has it’s own governing board and it’s own staff. Each one requires something different from me. Recently, a remarkable philanthropist offered to take Birdsong Farm to the next level of it’s organizational development. Knowing what the start up phase requires of a founder, I have spent the past few months evaluating my role with the Treehouse Foundation and Sibling Connections to see which one was truly ready for me to pass the baton. After careful assessment, I have chosen to rotate off of the Sibling Connections board of directors. It is a good time for the next generation of board members, staff and volunteers to carry the organization forward to serve sisters and brothers who have been separated when placed in foster care.

As a former business owner and the parent of a teen, a twentysomething and a thirtysomething, I have learned the role that grace plays when transitioning into a new era in a long term relationship. I have also learned the value of being available in the wings should the need for my expertise arise. I will apply these important lessons to my transition from Sibling Connections. Meanwhile, I will be cheering Sibling Connections on from the sidelines as I continue to build the Treehouse Foundation and open the door to a new chapter in the Birdsong Farm story.

Each New Year brings opportunities our way. I give thanks for each one and for all of the people, experiences and lessons learned while helping to develop Sibling Connections. My family will continue to support this fine organization. They will show up for Season 9 of Camp To Belong MA to volunteer as a camp counselor, CTB MA photographer and a volunteer in the CTB MA Horse Program.

Many thanks to all of the wonderful volunteers who make Sibling Connections year round programming possible. You are the backbone of the organization and I am proud to have served alongside you. I know you, the staff and board will take the baton and run with it in to honor the lives of sisters and brothers who are separated when placed in foster care. Best of Luck!

Earth, Wind & Fire

earth

Over the past decade I’ve driven back and forth across the state hundreds of times. While heading to Treehouse, Camp To Belong MA, Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conferences, Sibling Sundays and meetings of all kinds, I always have some fun music playing in my car. A few weeks ago it was a CD with my favorite songs from the TV show Nashville.

This week, after winning the Purpose Prize, I asked my husband for some music from Earth, Wind & Fire! I needed something celebratory. Something snappy that I could sing along with.

Today, with joyful music playing in the background, I began thinking of all the amazing people that have come together to Re-Envision Foster Care in America since
I sold my businesses and began this journey in 2002. Earth, Wind & Fire inspired me to appreciate them all.

At the Grand Opening of the Treehouse Community in 2006, we unfurled a scroll
that featured the names of all the people who made the building of the Treehouse Community possible. I had such a good time making that scroll. While writing the names, I fondly remembered the contributions that each person made. I recalled
their generosity and their talents. So many people. All focused on the health
and well-being of the kids.

Looking out across the sea of faces that had gathered to celebrate the mission and vision of Treehouse, I was struck by the generosity of spirit that filled the room. We were all there to bless the lives of our children and youth placed in foster care. You could actually feel our collective desire to invest in foster care innovation.
So much goodness..

I have felt that same collective goodness at Camp To Belong MA when the buses arrive in the Berkshires full of sisters and brothers from all over the state. It was there
at our first Birdsong Farm Summer Enrichment Program. It’s definitely alive in the Treehouse Community Center during community wide events and celebrations. Folks definitely want to do what’s right for the kids.

If I created a scroll now – one that listed ALL of the people who have helped make the Treehouse Community, the Treehouse Foundation, the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative, Sibling Connections, Camp To Belong MA, Sibling Sundays and Birdsong Farm possible, it would extend all the way around the Treehouse Community Center.

Since 2002 we have been actively creating a collaborative social change movement
and a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options so that Americans of all ages can become resources to children in their communities.

Treehouse and it’s partners have raised over $15 million to support foster care innovation. We are using the money to develop vibrant public-private partnerships that harness creative ideas, mobilize collective energy, and maximize financial resources in order to better serve our nation’s children experiencing foster care.
Replicable partnership and program models that we hope to share with communities
from coast to coast.

We call our collaborative social change movement the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative. Would you like to join us? Go to birdsongfarm.org, treehousecommunities.org, and siblingconnections.org. We’ll show what Re-Envisioning Foster Care looks like!

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!