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This Massachusetts Community Is Working Together to Support a Village of Foster Kids

Apr 21, 2019

In an activity center at the heart of an Easthampton, MA, community known as Treehouse, 83-year-old Lynne Knudsen teaches piano to Stephanie Wright, 21, an adopted foster child with Down syndrome. Nearby, a group of teenage girls who have grown up at Treehouse giggle and share secrets. A 4-year-old foster child plays in the lap of Mary Steele, 82, whom he calls "my best friend, my grandma." At one of the many tables, each adorned with a bouquet of pretty leaves, a small gathering of seniors plays cards.

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Lynne, once a schoolteacher in Hackensack, NJ, is one of 53 older people who lends her skills, love and experience to the foster families living at Treehouse. When she heard Stephanie singing, Lynne thought,This girl is musical; I want to see more of what she can do. So, she says, "I taught her what I knew, which was to handpick melodies, and now she practices all day long."

A WIN-WIN

Lynne and Stephanie exemplify the idea behind Treehouse, an intergenerational community built in 2006. The primary focus is to help move children out of foster care and into permanent homes, plus provide them with a sense of belonging and stability they would likely never experience otherwise.

But the benefit has been just as pronounced for the elders, many of them retired teachers, social workers and administrators who want to keep giving what they can.

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Living at Treehouse, they are spared many of the challenges facing older people, such as isolation, lack of stimulation and "absolute invisibility," as Mary, a retired social worker from Oklahoma with a snow white bob and sparkling blue eyes, puts it.

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Seated: Tanisha Gannett, Holly Handfield and Tanisha's sister, Meraliz. Standing: Aliana Rubio, Elizabeth Poudrier and Ashlynn Rubio.

When Holly Handfield, 66, a former home-goods store assistant manager, moved here eight years ago, "I was at a crossroads," she says. Holly raised four children on her own after her husband died. "Then they had their own lives, and I was alone. Here, I feel alive."

Treehouse's physical footprint is simple, designed to encourage interaction between neighbors. There are 12 townhouses with three, four or five bedrooms, and 48 one-bedroom cottages for the seniors, most of whom are women. The homes sit in a cul-de-sac, Treehouse Circle, the neighborhood's main street. The circle encloses a grassy field with two playgrounds and a memorial garden dedicated to Treehouse elders who have died. Residents walk with their dogs (at last count there were 32) and baby strollers—always running into one another, always connecting.

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"We constantly look out for these kids," says Pam Hanson, 71, who used to own a horse farm in central Massachusetts. "On prom night they have a dozen grandmas taking pictures."

To live at Treehouse, applicants must be willing to adopt children from the public welfare system; or be able-bodied and age 55 or older, ready to babysit, drive, tutor and, mostly, love the kids who live there. The planned community is the brainchild of Judy Cockerton, a teacher and businesswoman in Boston who in 1998 became a foster parent herself, an experience that transformed her life. "I thought,Is it possible for me to change foster care for the hundreds of thousands of American children who are in it?"

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Treehouse founder Judy Cockerton

For Judy, the statistics were too compelling to ignore. Nationwide, nearly 40% of foster kids are age 5 or younger, and while about 70,000 of them are available for adoption, most wait about two years before they find a home. And those who are never adopted (some 22,000 a year) remain in the system until they are 18, and then are sent out into the world without support. "Those numbers just wouldn't let go of me," says Judy.

Once she began looking into it, Judy noticed that well-intentioned people saw only two means of helping foster kids: either become a foster parent or adopt, both of which were huge commitments.

So Judy set out to establish other ways that people could be resources for kids in need. She sold her businesses and created three foundations, each dedicated to a different aspect of fostering: Sibling Connections reunites brothers and sisters separated by foster care; Birdsong Farm is an education center where children learn to garden and care for animals while developing work skills; and Treehouse provides a sense of permanence to kids who otherwise would bounce around the system until they are bounced out of it.

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A PLACE TO CALL HOME

Sandra Morales Rubio, 42, her husband, Angel, 37, and their two eldest adopted daughters arrived at Treehouse almost four years ago, after two years on the wait list. (Alexandra was born in 2012 and joined the family a few weeks later.) Prior to their move, the Rubios lived in nearby Holyoke, MA, in a neighborhood plagued by violence. The opportunity to relocate came "in the nick of time," Sandra says. The support her family has received at Treehouse has been invaluable. Rent is affordable, and extracurricular programs are offered free of charge—from dancing to theater to sports. There's even a winter ski trip. Treehouse resident Gloria LaFlamme, 85, ferries two of Sandra's girls between school and their psychological and occupational therapy appointments. "These kids would have nothing if not for this place," Sandra says. "We never want to leave."

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Sandra Morales Rubio and her adopted daughters Ashlynn, Aliana and Alexandra at the community center.

Wendy Gannett, 49, agrees that Treehouse has been a lifesaver. It wasn't long after she adopted three siblings—ages 3, 4 and 7—from foster care in 2005 that she became so overwhelmed she didn't know what to do. "I was a single mom to three kids all at once," she says. "It's not like I had a ton of practice." As a psychotherapist who worked with foster parents, Wendy was aware of the challenges of parenting vulnerable children who'd been abused or neglected—she had advised her stressed-out, desperate clients many times. But until she was raising her own, she couldn't truly appreciate the demands. "I thought to myself,How can I do this and still stay sane?"

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But Wendy had promised Alex, now 18, Tanisha, 15, and Meraliz, 13—each of whom had been severely traumatized—that she wasn't going anywhere. When she heard about Treehouse, she realized moving might be "the only way I could keep my promise," she says. Most Treehouse families have both biological and foster kids. Many, like Wendy, came because it is hard to keep up while also working.

Since then, Wendy married Alison Plummer, 53, a housepainter with two biological children on the autism spectrum. Both agree that without the help of elders like Rosa Young, 72, it would have been impossible to take care of their challenging crew. Wendy says she's particularly grateful for the date nights that Rosa makes possible. "We used to need two or three elders to babysit when they were younger," Alison says. "But now Rosa can handle them on her own."

Rosa says she's up for the chaos her surrogate grandkids bring. "They are very sweet and thoughtful," says the retired music therapist and mental health administrator from Michigan. The children visited Rosa when she was recovering from breast cancer treatment in 2012. "They were very sensitive to me, always asking how they could help."

ADDING VALUE

Mary Steele is particularly popular among the Treehouse teenagers because, among other reasons, she has taken many of them to get their driver's permits. Mary ended up moving to the neighborhood in 2007 and figures she "volunteers" about 20 hours a week. "There's always more I can do here, but I don't feel overburdened," she says. "All my life, I've been a caregiver. I like that Treehouse is filled with like-minded people. It feels like a perfect match."

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Mary Steele gets a foster child to school.





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Date: 07.12.2018, 08:03 / Views: 44261