On the Road with FMC

A Hub of Innovation in Easthampton

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Ihave a unique job. I travel the country seeking out the best practices in foster care, and through the swell of solution-based media coverage I create, I hope to change the public perception of what foster care is. This search for the best has taken me to an Indian reservation on the Puget Sound, a revolutionary program keeping children together in Salinas, and the gutted neighborhoods of East Baltimore where the traditional silos of education and foster care have come together.

In this context it is no surprise that I found myself walking in Easthampton, Massachusetts, under the proud head of Mount Tom in a horseshoe-shaped community set amid red and yellow trees. I was next to Judy Cockerton, the founder of the Treehouse Foundation, which opened its doors in 2006. Cockerton's idea was brilliantly simple: create a community centered on our most vulnerable children.

The Treehouse Foundation has small cottages where elders live and larger, multi-bedroom homes where foster and adoptive families raise their children. The concept brings a second life to elders who would otherwise be in retirement homes staring back at life gone by, and gives children a cocoon of support and love. Out of this simple idea a 100-member Treehouse community has grown, one of a handful of similar communities starting to sprout up across the United States.

But beyond the community itself Cockerton has created a hub of innovation, a nucleus in a growing organic movement to improve foster care. As we were walking, we came to a garden at the bend in the horseshoe at the back of the community. A week earlier, children sold the garden's produce in a "farmer's market" at the Treehouse community center. Treehouse uses programs like farming, bringing separated siblings together in monthly "Sibling Sundays," and classes in theater and songwriting to bring the community together.

"We are really trying to flip the paradigm," she said as we strolled along, our shoes wet with dewy grass. "So that we are inviting people of all ages in to become part of the solution whatever your expertise is. If it's green, you know the green movement. If it is gardening, if it is IT, graphic arts, teaching. Whatever your expertise is, the kids need you. And we invite you to come in and join us in flipping this paradigm, so that we are really re-envisioning foster care."

As she spoke, a car drove by and a smiling white-haired woman waved as she passed us. The neighborhood was quiet--the kids off to school, a whole village waiting for them to come home. In my travels, I have seen so much good, but the simple brilliance in Easthampton is an inspiration for us all. It speaks to what we all hope is possible for children and makes us believe.

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