Judy Cockerton greets me with a big grin, arms open wide.
Cockerton is the founder of the Treehouse Foundation, an organization seeking to impact child welfare practice and promote investment in the nation’s foster and adopted youth through the development of effective programs and practices.
Every day Cockerton drives an hour and a half from her home outside Boston to the Treehouse Community in Easthampton, Mass., where I met her on a humid morning in August.
The Treehouse Community opened in 2006 and is a multigenerational, planned neighborhood where adoptive families, their children and elders age 55 and older invest in one another’s lives.
Cockerton has been the inspirational force behind the Treehouse Community, and the model has proven so successful that Treehouse communities are now expanding to other states, including New York and California.
The original Treehouse Community, snugly fit in a mountainside meadow in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, is a reminder of wholesome connections. The power of a smile, a friendly favor. The community is Cockerton’s vision brought to life, a vision for foster youth that began years earlier.
Cockerton began her unpredicted journey into the world of child welfare in 1998. One evening while finishing dinner her husband handed her a newspaper article about a five-month-old boy who was kidnapped from his crib while taking an afternoon nap in his foster home.
After a deep discussion with her husband and two children by birth, ages 12 and 18 at the time, the family came to the conclusion that they had the resources, expertise and desire to be of service to children and youth placed in foster care.
Cockerton called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and signed up to become a foster mom. In May 1999, the Cockertons welcomed two sisters, ages five months and 17 months, into their home.
“I walked into the child welfare world knowing very little,” Cockerton said.
At the time, Cockerton owned two award-winning specialty toy stores in the Boston area, and had previously been a teacher. However, her life quickly changed as she became more involved with the foster care system.
“As I scanned the landscape dedicated to the welfare of children who have been removed from their homes and families and are in need of the best enrichment services our society has to offer, I found it was devoid of color, joy, opportunity and people,” Cockerton says. “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, what can I do to truly change this reality?’”
Cockerton fueled her energies into the foster youth population, leading to the creation of the Treehouse Foundation in 2002.
“Since 2002, the Treehouse Foundation’s tag line has been ‘Every child rooted in family and community,’” Cockerton said.
The Treehouse Foundation currently has two major initiatives: the Treehouse Community and the Re-envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) initiative.
At Treehouse, “Over 100 people ranging in age live together. Residents are invested in one another’s health and well-being,” Cockerton says. “It is really quite beautiful to be there.”
The intergenerational Treehouse Community provides families for children who are at risk of becoming the next generation of poor and homeless Americans.
“These intergenerational communities play a really important role to provide support for foster youth and families,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an organization that aims to improve the lives of children and older adults through intergenerational collaboration.
The community layout builds networks of people who invest in the futures of children, and the elders’ lives are transformed as well.
“They’re living lives of purpose and meaning, and are fully integrated into the community,” Cockerton says. “They’re out there teaching classes, they hold summer classes, they’re mixed in with staff members.”
The Treehouse Community blends private and public resources into a three-way organizational model.
In combination with the Treehouse Foundation, Beacon Communities serves as the housing affiliate, and Berkshire Children and Families, a licensed social service agency providing on-site services for foster and adopted youth, serves as the Treehouse Community’s child welfare partner. Staff members from Berkshire Children and Families, Beacon Communities LLC and the Treehouse Foundation are on site daily.
Cockerton’s work with Treehouse led to the creation of the REFCA initiative. REFCA launched in late 2010, and serves as a model for regional investment in the success and well-being of children and families who experience foster care.
“Most Americans think there are only two ways they can support foster children: to adopt or to be a foster parent. And then millions of people walk away because it’s too much to do,” Cockerton says. “Now we’re creating many more opportunities through camps, animal therapy programs, youth empowerment programs for people to volunteer, step up and get to know the kids. And then once they do, they do, and they fall in love and want to become a resource for them.”
Today Treehouse and its affiliates are nationally recognized for their work. Cockerton has created a “menu” of engagement opportunities associated with the Treehouse Foundation. Programs include the Camp To Belong MA program, which brings siblings separated by foster care together for a summer camp experience, and the Project Thrive! Birth to Five Initiative, which aims to improve child outcomes through development and school readiness, in addition to many more programs, activities and events.
REFCA holds an annual “National Re-Envisioning Foster Care Conference,” to inform and inspire practitioners and citizens about foster care in America. The seventh annual conference was held this past May.
“Treehouse is a terrific model and the founder has been so committed and passionate over the years,” Butts said.
Seeing her organization and networks not only grow but induce a tangible impact has been a rewarding experience for Cockerton. “It has been awesome seeing people get excited about getting involved with the lives of these children.”
A picturesque New England mountain stands adjacent to the Treehouse Community, a serene backdrop to the orderly homes sprinkled with bright summer wildflowers. As Cockerton and I walk the road around Treehouse Circle neighbors poke their heads out of their homes and smile. A curious cat darts out from the community garden and pauses in the street, cocking its head at us.
Cockerton pauses in her explanation of the garden, “When I was looking for a location for Treehouse, I knew this would be a perfect place to heal, to grow.”
At a time when interactions with others different from ourselves are often quick and systematic, Treehouse serves as a reminder of the power of compassion and connection, the recognition of the shared responsibility we have to the most vulnerable members of our society.
“I believe that as citizens we own [the child welfare system], and that it is ours to improve, and that it can be improved,” Cockerton says.