In Easthampton village, everyone helps the children
EASTHAMPTON — The 5-year-old boy in the green shirt with “Cool Little Bro” written across the chest had just thumped 81-year-old Mary Steele in the nose with a balloon. Steele, who was baby-sitting the excited child for his foster mother, stopped fast and flashed a look of mock surprise.
“Now, you have to give me a kiss right on the nose,” Steele said. The boy, clearly happy, did not consider this a chore.
Laughter and smiles have not come easily to the child, who was removed from his biological parents a year ago because of domestic violence and substance abuse.
But now, engaged and embraced, he is part of a pioneering social project called the Treehouse community, a 60-home village built from scratch nearly a decade ago in a broad former meadow near Mount Tom.
It’s an uncommon place, where once-traumatized children are raised in a quiet neighborhood where the special needs of foster and adoptive families are supported and understood.
It’s also a place where dozens of elderly residents have moved specifically to help these families in simple but critical ways — by walking children to school, by baby-sitting to give stressed parents a break — and to savor the simple pleasures of joining a community where their help and life experience are appreciated.
“This gives me an opportunity to serve,” said Steele, who had been a social worker in Oklahoma before she moved to Treehouse in 2007. “To me, life has meaning and purpose. This is the continuation of a vocation.”
Outside her brightly colored cottage, a small sign greets passersby with this simple message: “We love our children.”
The sign captures something about the Treehouse community: its aspiration to a hard-to-come-by small town ideal. Nearly everyone knows one another at Treehouse, and all the residents — parents, biological children, and the elderly — are encouraged to contribute to the mission, which is to give foster and adopted children a lasting sense of family and the tools to make good on life when they move out on their own.
Since Treehouse opened in 2006, a total of 61 children have arrived directly from foster care or with adoptive families. None of them have dropped out of school; there have been no teenage pregnancies, and all 16 children who applied for college have been accepted.
“This is a little utopia,” said Sandra Rubio, who lives at Treehouse with three adopted girls. “It’s whatever you want it to be.”
The idea for Treehouse was born at Judy Cockerton’s kitchen table in 1998, when the former teacher and toy-shop owner decided to do something for children without a permanent home. Her husband, Arthur Pollock, had just handed her a newspaper article about a 5-month-old boy in foster care who had been kidnapped from his crib in Worcester.
Cockerton summoned her two children back to the table at their Sharon home. “What do we want to do?” she asked the family. “We have the resources and the space and the ability to support children.”
The next day she called the state to offer her help. “Would you please take two?” Cockerton was asked. “We’ll be there in an hour,” she replied.
From that beginning, Cockerton embarked on a complex journey in which she learned as she went — creating a nonprofit organization, seeking a site, finding an affordable-housing partner, and searching for child-welfare services that the Treehouse community would need.
“It takes a while for people to wrap their heads around this idea,” said Cockerton, who serves as chief executive officer of the Treehouse Foundation.
It’s an idea that Treehouse officials would like to replicate. Nearly 30,000 young adults in the United States “age out” of the foster-care system each year, and their lives afterward are often difficult.
Cockerton’s inspiration came from Hope Meadows, an adoptive Illinois community where seniors also live. What has emerged here 15 miles north of Springfield, Cockerton believes, is the only development of its kind in the Northeast that mixes adoptive and foster families with the elderly.
The $15.9 million project was designed by Beacon Communities, a Boston-based developer of affordable housing, with input from the City of Easthampton, the state, and conservation agencies. Berkshire Children and Families, a social-service organization, has two staff members on site who provide mental health and parenting support. Educational partnerships have been formed with schools and cultural groups.
Beacon owns and manages the property, which was built in a former hay field after investors, donors, grants, and state and federal tax credits helped make the dream a reality. Families who apply for housing are rigorously vetted by Treehouse managers.
The path to these connections was jump-started in 2002 when Cockerton asked for a meeting with Lewis “Harry” Spence, the commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, who steered Cockerton to Beacon Communities.
“I just thought the opportunity for a community of people who share a commitment to the parenting of adoptive children could be enormously valuable,” said Spence, who is the state’s trial court administrator. “I think that can make the difference between a successful and a failed adoption.”
One measure of success is that Treehouse attracts residents of differing incomes as well as age. Aided by tax credits, half of the 12 homes for adoptive families are reserved for households that make less than $56,700. The 48 cottages for residents 55 and older go to singles or couples with incomes less than $42,000.
The growing pains have been few, Cockerton said, but a foster parent who worked off-site as a teacher was charged in 2007 in a child-pornography case. The foster child, who was not involved in the case, was removed from his custody. No child at Treehouse was harmed, Cockerton said.
Adults come to Treehouse full of idealism and hope; children come from another place.
All the adopted or foster children here have serious emotional or physical needs. Many were abused by their biological parents or in previous foster homes. And reunification with their mothers and fathers, the primary goal of the foster-care system, has been deemed unworkable or impossible.
Treehouse is their safe haven, with 106 residents spread among duplexes for adoptive families and farm-style cottages for seniors. The homes, all rentals, are clustered amid 17 acres of green, open space. The residences are angled toward others to encourage interaction.
There are two playgrounds, 32 dogs, and small buses that link residents with the Pioneer Valley and beyond.
Doors are often unlocked, and children visit the homes of elderly neighbors just to chat or to borrow a sweater. The community center — a gathering place that holds a kitchen, library, post office, and all-purpose room — is a beehive of activity that ranges from tutoring to parenting advice to holiday parties.
“I knew I was searching for community. This is community for me. This is family,” said Pam Hanson, 70, who crisscrosses the village in a motorized wheelchair. Hanson moved here from Central Massachusetts after a teaching career because she missed the interaction with children and wanted to feel productive.
“There is an innate kindness and respectfulness that you just don’t see anywhere,” Hanson said. “I feel in love with the place — not just the physical place, but the idea of being older but not yet dead,” she added, chuckling.
Rosa Young, 71, drove here from her family cabin in Michigan nine years ago after she heard about Treehouse on National Public Radio.
“I just didn’t like the idea of not having children around,” said Young, who had been a director of homeless services for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health before she retired and moved back to the Midwest.
Young helped a Treehouse family with two biological children and three adopted siblings, driving them to school on some days and baby-sitting on Fridays to give their parents, Alison Plummer and Wendy Gannett, a night on the town by themselves.
Before connecting with Plummer and Gannett, the adopted siblings had meandered through foster care after being taken from their biological home. The children had been severely underfed and appear to have been physically abused. One of the siblings weighed 35 pounds at age 7 — after 12 foster homes in two years — when Plummer and Gannett began caring for him.
Young, for her part, followed a recipe for dealing with the effects of their trauma: “Being predictable, and kind, and saying yes as often as I can.”
Plummer and Gannett reciprocated her thoughtfulness in many ways, including accompanying Young to chemotherapy appointments for breast cancer two years ago.
Another neighbor, 80-year-old Gloria LaFlamme, moved to Treehouse from North Adams, not quite sure what to expect and not quite sure how she could help. The retired nurse had no previous experience with foster children.
Enter Ashlynn and Aliana,now 11 and 9, who needed transportation to weekly therapy sessions while their adoptive mother, Sandra Rubio, worked a dozen miles away in Westfield. The family faced a scheduling gap because Sandra’s husband, Angel, works at night in food service at Amherst College.
LaFlamme’s contribution — making the 35-minute drive each way to therapy — brought mutual benefits. The girls did not make a fuss when LaFlamme asked to listen to classical music. And updates from Ashlynn and Aliana about their daily ups and downs provided a lift and focus for LaFlamme.
The state placed the girls with Sandra Rubio when she was living in a tough Holyoke neighborhood scarred by crime and drugs. First came Ashlynn, an emergency placement whom Sandra agreed to take for a weekend.
“Monday morning never came,” Sandra recalled with a smile; Ashlynn never left. Gradually, the sullen girl who did not smile or make eye contact began to open up. Aliana arrived two years later in 2006, a four-day-old infant born with drugs in her system.
The girls rarely left their apartment, and they had few friends in the neighborhood. Then, three years ago, Sandra applied for one of the homes at Treehouse, and a fresh start became a reality.
Angel Rubio had moved in with Sandra by this time, and the pair decided to accept another foster child — Aliana’s three-week-old sister, Alexandra. Angel had not known what to expect, and he had some trepidations, but foster care became a life-changing experience for him.
“All my life, I’ve been very irresponsible taking care of myself, but now I take care of myself because of the girls,” said Angel, a quiet 36-year-old who struggles with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and Crohn’s disease. “It makes me want to stay around a little bit longer.”
Sometimes, he is startled at who he has become, a recently married man with a ready-made family who sings children’s rhymes as he works.
Sandra, 41, has seen the change in her partner. “He told me, ‘I thought this only happened in the movies,’ ” she said.
In September, the Rubios were awarded custody of Alexandra in a festive ceremony at Hampden Juvenile Court in Springfield. Relatives, friends, and Treehouse residents wiped away tears as First Justice Daniel Swords worked his way through the legal minutiae.
Finally, with a broad smile, Swords declared the adoption “final and irrevocable.” Alexandra bounded up to the judge’s chair, grabbed his gavel, and pounded the desk 13 loud and confident times.
The Treehouse concept so far has made a small dent in a vast problem, but Cockerton has plans that go well beyond the Pioneer Valley.
Discussions have begun for a Treehouse neighborhood in Santa Clara County, Calif., where Cockerton is exploring partnerships with housing and child-welfare organizations. Treehouse also is considering a community in the western Boston suburbs, and a group from Atlanta visited recently to seek ideas for a development in Georgia.
It is an ambitious vision fueled by a chronic need.
“We want to drive change in the nation,” Cockerton said. “I can see a Treehouse community in every state around the country.”