It’s tea time at Treehouse Village, a housing development in central Massachusetts.
Kids gather in the community center where they hang out, get homework help, and eat snacks. Windows look out onto a playground, with Mount Tom framing the background.
“I really, really, really, really, like that I have friends here,” says nine-year-old Azariya. “Because in Springfield, I didn’t have friends at all.”
Azariya tells us that some of her friends here are quite a bit older than her. But that doesn’t stop her from hanging out with them.
“I usually draw with them… sometimes we talk and they ask me what’s going on in school.”
Emily Lewis, who’s in her late seventies, is one of Azariya’s best friends. They’ve known each other for four years, ever since Lewis moved in next door to Azariya’s family.
Treehouse Village is a community of 60 houses: 40 of them for elders, and 20 of them for families with foster kids. Right now, Treehouse boasts a 99% high school graduation rate – far above the national average for youth in foster care.
The elders range from 58 to 95, and most of them are women. Though they don’t have a formal role in the community, they help with babysitting, transportation, and, of course, tea time. They’re frequently honorary family members.
Judy Cockerton, the founder of Treehouse, started the village after adopting her own daughter from foster care 18 years ago. “I knew the need for foster-adoptive parents to not be isolated,” she says. “When you’re in isolation, you fail.”
Treehouse has social workers on staff and helps families access whatever additional services they might need. But, for Cockerton, the most important part of the village is the structure and stability it provides.
“Making sure that they have a steady, stable home life… and they’re not bouncing from home to home,” can make an enormous difference in a child’s life, she says.
Joe Ryan, a professor at University of Michigan School of Social Work and co-director of the Child and Adolescent Data Lab, agrees. But he thinks that a lot of the troubles facing foster kids have to do with where they were before foster care.
“The kids who experience foster care have lower levels of college enrollment, higher levels of delinquency,” Ryan explains. “These are problems that a lot of them had coming into the foster care system.”
Ryan doubts that places like Treehouse could fix the entire foster care system, but he does see them as part of a larger network.
“Any of these interventions, we ought to view them as contributing to the solution,” Ryan says, but cautions that “they’re not going to work for all kids.”
Cockerton acknowledges that just focusing on villages is too small-scale to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids. And, like Ryan, she subscribes to a multi-pronged approach.
“Millions of Americans turn and walk away from children in their communities,” she says. “Most people think there are only two ways they can support a child in foster care: you either become a foster parent or you adopt a child.”
Instead, she plans to show people that there are many ways to get involved with our foster system. She’s organizing mentorship programs, summer activities – things that will involve both foster care kids and volunteers outside the Treehouse community.
But for children like Azariya, moving to the village has been life-changing.
At the end of our conversation, we asked Azariya: what’s the best part of having an older friend? Here’s what she told us:
“I’m glad they don’t pinch my cheeks like in movies.”