Category Archives: Treehouse

Celebrating Our Accomplishments

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At Treehouse we know that communities aren’t just built with bricks and mortar. Communities are people. Our neighbors, friends, and family. And this year, as we celebrate seven years of intergenerational living on Treehouse Circle, we are looking back on all our accomplishments and forward to what the future may bring.

The Treehouse Community in Easthampton opened in 2006. As soon as the celebration ended, Treehouse Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead, and I began the process of bringing Treehouse community members of all ages together in exciting and meaningful ways. It was a wonderful moment in our Treehouse history.

We immediately began welcoming children, families and elders to live in their new homes on Treehouse Circle. The vision of the Treehouse Community – children being moved out of foster care into permanent, loving families who live in a neighborhood where people of all ages invest in their health, well-being and futures – was palpable. You could feel the goodness in the air.

Seven years later you can still feel that goodness on Treehouse Circle. It shows up as people come together to break bread, learn new skills, give one another a ride to the doctor, pick up a neighbor’s child from school, take an art class together, celebrate holidays, chat while their children play on the playground, and gather to raise their voices in song. The way life should be. One generation meeting the needs of another.

Over the past 87 months, the Treehouse community members have demonstrated the value of multigenerational living and invited many others to stand under the banner of Shared Responsibility.

The award winning Treehouse Foundation invests in lives and is also a catalyst for the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement. We show people what it takes to help children and youth whose lives have been impacted by foster care flourish and thrive. We support adoptive, birth, foster, guardianship, and kinship parents in exciting new ways. We highlight the value of vital aging in a country where 1 out of every 3 children born today will live to be 100. We inspire others to build intergenerational communities in their states.

Every day I get down on my knees and give thanks for all of the visionaries who have been on the Treehouse Journey. Together we have put the needs of our most vulnerable children on the table and leveraged the people, dollar and idea resources needed to create a Hub of Foster Care Innovation.

In the process we have created a Culture of Possibility with fabulous partners throughout New England and across the nation; a culture with partnership as it’s core value.

All of this collaborative social change was started seven years ago at the Treehouse Community and is made possible by ordinary citizens: Treehouse board members, business leaders, non-profit partners, school groups, faith based organizations, civic groups, professionals, philanthropists, and the 100+ Treehouse Pioneers who chose to move to Treehouse Circle.

Without these dedicated individuals and their ongoing investment of time, treasure and talent, the foster care landscape would not be as vibrant as it is today.

Thanks to the Treehouse Foundation’s bold vision, people of all ages and backgrounds are investing in foster care innovation and stepping up to the plate in exciting new ways.

Thank you for supporting the Treehouse Foundation.
Here’s to the well-being of all our nation’s children!

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A Life Well Lived

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It is said that there are only two stories – a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care are living both stories at the same time.

Take 5 year old Ali. Last week she was living at home with her mother who suffers from poor mental health. A call was made to the Department of Children and Families by a teacher citing neglect. A visit to the home was made. The next day Ali was picked up at school by a social worker and taken to a foster home.

Being removed from one’s family and placed in foster care is traumatic. This experience, even when a child is being removed from an unsafe situation, can bring grief, shock, stigma, loss and a future filled with invisibility, shame and hopelessness.

Most children aren’t doing anything special when their lives break apart – one moment they are with their family or with their peers at school, the next they are not. This is a life altering experience. Some children have the resilience to cope with the unpredictability, loss and change inherent in our chiild welfare system. Others find it completely overwhelming.

Ali is a child who found the experience completely overwhelming. She is very close to her mom. Losing her was simply too much to bear. She needed more than a foster home.She required hospitalization and round the clock support. Hopefully, she will feel better soon and be placed with a caring trauma informed family that lives in a community that understands her grief and will help her heal – people who surround her with all of the kindness and compassion she needs.

We make a promise to children when we remove them from their homes: to provide them with safety and find them a permanent loving connection if they cannot be returned to their first family. In a timely fashion.

Somewhere along the way we, as a nation, forgot our promise and many children like Ali “bounce” through a series of homes, schools, and people.. We know that all children need to belong and be connected to loving people. They need to feel cherished. Without these basic cornerstones, children become lost souls. Imagine if Ali and her half million peers who are experiencing foster care were connected to a group of adults who value, honor, love and support them. Imagine the difference this would make. For their lives, our communities, schools, prisons and society.

The Treehouse Foundation does imagine a different life for our children in foster care. For the past decade we have been investing in widspread innovation designed to ensure that all children live healthy and productive lives. We envision every child being woven into a safety net of loving, respectful and caring relationships.

In 2006 we opened our first multigenerational Treehouse Community to pro-actively address our nation’s “aging out” crisis. Every year in this country 25,000 young Americans “age out” of our public foster care system alone. Without a family to claim them and an extended family standing beside them, they are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, teen parenting, unemployment and lives of poverty.

The Treehouse Community model invites Americans of all ages to help children. It demonstrates how we can work together to move youngsters out of foster care into permanent loving adoptive homes so they are never at risk of “aging out”. We are dissolving the foster care pipeline to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.

For the past 7 years, over 100 people, ranging in age from newborn to 94, have been investing in one another’s health and well-being. Kids are moving out of the child welfare system, being adopted by caring families, consistently supported by their neighbors, succeeding in school, getting the mental health services they need, and heading off on career paths or to college where they are pursuing their interests.

In 2010, the Treehouse Foundation launched the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Movement to harness creative ideas and leverage resources to better serve our children and youth. In addition to planning and hosting 4 annual Re Envisioning Foster Care in America Conferences and facilitating the development of 8 regional REFCA Working Groups, the Treehouse Foundation is leading the creation of a regional REFCA Road Map and Implementation Plan Process for western Massachusetts – a template that can replicated coast to coast.

Children in foster care are homeless in the deepest sense. Many have lost their first families, their innocence and their dreams. The Treehouse Foundation is working non-stop to create a Culture of Possibility so that every child in America is given the opportunity to live a life that is valued, supported and well lived.

Ali and her peers deserve to thrive. They are worthy of our investment. Please help the Treehouse Foundation achieve widespread impact. Go to refca.net and donate $50, $100, $25) or more today. Help us Be The Change! Thank You!

What Are You The Most Proud Of?

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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

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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!

A Wonderful Woman

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Since 2005 I have had the honor and the distinct pleasure of working side by side with a wonderful woman named Kerry Homstead. Together we have built the Treehouse Community and launched the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative. Standing under the banner of Shared Responsibility we cast a bold vision: Every Child Rooted In Family & Community.

Kerry has spent her entire career supporting children and families. When we met she was working at Smith College. Our official Treehouse Foundation titles are Founder/Executive Director and Treehouse Community Facilitator. For seven years we have functioned as a team. We are equals. I have profound respect for Kerry. She is intelligent, thoughtful, wise and trustworthy. Just ask Treehouse community members
and our Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America partners!

Kerry Homstead is also highly professional and diplomatic – two traits that come in very handy when you are engaged in collaborative social change. Recently, after winning the Purpose Prize, I found myself thinking about all of the layers of engagement required to be a successful social change agent. Diplomacy is key. I went to the dictionary and looked up the definition of the word diplomat. It said, “A person who deals with people tactfully or skillfully.” That’s Kerry.

I used to think the best way to describe the Treehouse Community Facilitator’s role was “something akin to a faith based leader”. I have now refined my explanation of the job description to “something akin to a faith based leader and a diplomat”. Diplomacy is the key to Kerry’s approach. She is accessible, discreet, flexible, solution oriented and able to handle all manner of life circumstances with grace (read juggle five balls in the air while scanning the horizon for new balls coming up and old balls falling gently downward). She is a fabulous listener and a seasoned professional who generously shares her time with anyone who visits, lives and works on Treehouse Circle.

For the past twenty years I have kept an Appreciation Journal. Every morning I begin my day acknowledging all that I am thankful for. Every evening I do the same. This writing practice keeps me grounded in goodness. Paying attention to all of the positives in my life helps me stay in the moment and accomplish so much more as a social entrepreneur, mom, wife, friend, sister, child advocate, neighbor and citizen.

When I look back through my appreciations over the past seven years Kerry’s name comes up daily. I appreciate her work ethic, her dedication, her thoughtful responses, her respectful collaboration, her kindness, her authenticity. I am grateful for her patience, her calm approach, her amazing skill set.

This morning I appreciate having the opportunity to head into the Conference Room and wrap holiday presents with her – an annual tradition that allows us to show all of the children and youth living on Treehouse Circle just how much we love and appreciate them at this time of the year. I know that when I come home tonight spending time with Kerry selecting gifts and writing holiday cards for the kids is something I will write about in my Appreciation Journal. I’m sure there will be other pieces of our day together that I will also note.

Thank you Kerry. You are an inspiration and a role model to us all. Having you in my life and on this Re-Envisioning Foster Care Journey is such a blessing. I look forward to the lessons we will learn together as our work unfolds in the new year!

Life On Treehouse Circle

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If you walk into the Treehouse Community Center these days you will hear
the rat-a-tat sound of a floor drill. We are replacing the floor in the
Gathering Space – the largest area of the TCC where we all gather for Soup Tastings, Treehouse Teas, homework, birthday parties, adoption celebrations, Re- Envisioning Foster Care Working Group meetings, sign language classes, seasonal fiestas, celebrations of life, art projects, pot lucks, regional gatherings,and much more!

Replacing the floor has given us an opportunity to use many other parts of the Community Center to host events. Last week-end the HEROES Youth Leadership
Project used the Kitchen, Library and Foyer when making a film.
“Grace & Flexibility” is our motto!

Yesterday afternoon I opened the door to the Library and was delighted to
encounter more than a dozen people, ranging in age from 3 weeks old to
65 years, engaged in an array of activities. “What fun!”, I thought and
immediately walked over to meet our newest Treehouse
community member who was sleeping in the arms of a loving neighbor.

After greeting everyone I found an open spot at the Homework Table where
Westfield State interns, a young girl and a lovely elder were making Christmas
tree ornaments and two teens were researching job openings at the Holyoke Mall.

Treehouse Community Facilitator, Kerry Homstead, was reading
a college application essay that had just been completed by one of our
high school seniors. As she gave him feedback our Treehouse Tutor checked
in with another youth who had requested help with her homework. They decided
to go to the Conference Room where they could work on a project that required
more space and a quieter work environment. A Treehouse staff member was
seated on the couch engaged in a lively discussion with several young people.

Kerry finished reading the college application essay and began to take photos
of the group. A mom walked in and asked if the tutor might have time to fit her daughter into the day’s Homework Help schedule. After she signed her up, she
headed out to take her younger daughter to an appointment. Arrangements
were made to transport her daughter home after the science homework was
complete.

Conversations in English, Spanish, Spanglish and Sign Language filled
the room. When our newest Treehouse community member woke up and needed
a diaper change, I offered to help. We were all delighted that the baby
was waking up. As we made our way through the foyer to the bathroom we
spoke gently to her. For a community of people who are on a mission to
serve children whose lives have been impacted by foster care, we are honored
to have the opportunity to support the health and well-being of infants,
toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary aged children, middle schoolers, teens
and young adults living on Treehouse Circle.

As I placed the baby gently onto the changing table and began to unfold
her tiny diaper, the door to the Women’s Room opened and a lovely young
woman requested a ride to the high school so she could attend an important
meeting. Her mom was still at work and had suggested that her daughter
walk down to the Treehouse Community Center to see if someone was available
to help out. Her kind neighbor said, “Sure!” and off they went.

After the baby had been diapered and was carefully wrapped up in a colorful
fleece blanket, her family arrived to pick her up. We exchanged greetings,
hugs and information. Then they headed home. Another mom stopped by to pick
up her mail and chat. One of the Treehouse staff members took a group of kids
outside for some fresh air. They headed for the playground.

The workers put their drills away and began to pack up. The afternoon’s
Sign Language class ended and students stopped by the Library to check on
our progress and share what they learned during their time together. The
young man who had been working on his college application essay wished everyone
a good night and went home to eat dinner. Two of his siblings came over to the Library as he was leaving and began their homework.

Those of us who had been making Christmas tree ornaments congratulated one
another on our success – a lovely tray of handcrafted bells.

As I was cutting out my last felt leaf of the day, I heard laughter. Glancing
up, I had the pleasure of seeing two young friends, one deaf and one hearing,
engaged in a conversation about a movie they had both clearly enjoyed. As they conversed their moms and siblings were making plans to get together later in
the week.

Life on Treehouse Circle is full of connection, goodness and belonging.
Something we all need. I’m delighted that replacing the Treehouse Community
Center floor has given us this opportunity to gather together and share our
lives in such caring and creative ways!

Earth, Wind & Fire

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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!