Judy Cockerton, CEO and founder of The Treehouse Foundation, began her passionate advocacy for children when she was already happy in a different career. After teaching for ten years and owning her own specialty toy stores in the Boston area for twenty, Judy came home one night to see an article about a five-month old boy in foster care who had been kidnapped. (Pictured: Judy with her adopted daughter, Brianna.)
“My twelve and eighteen-year old children were putting the dishes in the sink. We had a family meeting about the foster care system. We became a foster family and suddenly I had a five-month-old on one hip and a seventeen-month-old on the other. Eventually we adopted a child. I decided I wanted to support the work of the child welfare system and hoped to collaborate with others to inspire a re-envisioning of foster care in America.”
“The statistic that jumped out at me,” says Cockerton, “is 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. As I was holding two sweet baby girls in my arms and realizing that this was the reality being predicted for them, I asked myself, ‘What can we do on the front end of a child’s foster care experience so that they are never at risk for ‘aging out’ alone? What can we do to help children and youth placed in foster care move out of the child welfare system into permanent loving families?’”
As a result of that life-changing moment, Cockerton decided to create a new way of caring for our nation’s children and youth placed in foster care – one that would give Americans more opportunities to become resources to children in their communities. “I realized that most Americans think that there are only two ways to support a child placed in foster care: 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 youngsters who need them the most. I began creating a compelling new menu of engagement options so that Americans of all ages could choose a variety of ways to contribute their time, treasure and talent: they could volunteer their time to work in a community garden, help in a homework club, teach a child how to ride a horse, donate money to support an innovative arts program, host a weekly arts program, be a camp counselor or teach kids how to play the guitar.”
In 2002, Cockerton established The Treehouse Foundation and in 2006 opened the first Treehouse Community: a planned multigenerational community where families adopting children from the public foster care system live with caring neighbors of all ages in 60 new rental homes in western Massachusetts.
The Treehouse name itself was a result of “looking for a word that is a childhood icon and makes people smile.”
The Treehouse Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conference
Treehouse is holding its next Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conference on May 31 in Holyoke, Mass. The first such event was held in 2010 to support investment in innovation in the areas of Aging Out/Transitioning, Education and Permanency. Since then, three Working Groups have been collaborating to leverage people, ideas and dollar resources to better serve children in foster care. The keynote speaker at the Holyoke conference will be Vanessa Diffenbaugh, who has written “Language of Flowers,” a novel about a young woman who ages out of foster care.
The primary goal of the conference, says Cockerton, is “to strengthen and support a region that collectively advances investment in innovative programs and practices to restore the health and well-being of children and youth experiencing foster care. Each conference takes the next steps forward to collaboratively harness creative ideas and the power of networks, mobilize collective energy and maximize financial resources — all directed toward better serving youngsters experiencing foster care.
“Through re-envisioning, we can turn around and walk back toward the children,” says Cockerton. “And the way to do that is to create a compelling menu of new engagement opportunities. That could be anything from camp programs to animal therapy to inter-generational communities.”
“There are a lot of fabulous professionals in the field,” says Cockerton. “But I did not see a lot of ordinary citizens like myself taking part. Most Americans think there are only two ways to deal with children who are not being taken care of. One is to become a foster parent, and the other is to adopt. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people walk away from children who need the most help.
“I began looking around the country, to see if anybody was doing something proactive as far as helping children move out of foster care. I saw what Brenda Eheart was doing at Hope Meadows. I flew out to meet her and spoke to everyone there. I realized this was something that was completely worth changing my life for — a compelling model. I felt the intergenerational component and daily involvement in one another’s lives was the right path. If we are going to do the right thing in children’s lives, it will take common sense and humanity.
“We found land in Massachusetts and partnered with Beacon Communities to build our first community with rental housing — which has now been home to over hundred people from ages four to ninety since 2006.” The community includes twelve family townhouses and 48 elder cottages.
Every child at Treehouse, says Cockerton, lives with a family, which is committed to permanency for them, whether it be adoption or guardianship. There are families who have adopted groups of two, three and four children living at Treehouse.
“We have just begun phase two, which involves home ownership,” says Cockerton. “Our first intergenerational family recently moved into a private home – an energy efficient home.”
Treehouse, says Cockerton, is different from Hope Meadows in a number of important ways including:
- The use of state and federal tax credits
- The partnership with Berkshire
- Home ownership
“I love Brenda and thank her for giving us that model. Every day when I drive to Treehouse, I am surrounded by people investing in one another’s lives.”
“It’s all about collaborative social change,” she goes on. “From the day we started we have been reaching out to other nonprofits. We see it as a regional effort — and hopefully our region will inspire the nation. Our regional partners include colleges and museums; we are fortunate to be in an area with a lot of institutions eager to get involved.”
Recently, Cockerton started a consultancy called Imagine That to help others emulate the Treehouse model. “I get calls from people interested in developing a Treehouse-inspired community.”