SEATTLE — When the children living in foster care come traipsing through the doors of Treehouse after school, Samuel D. Martin IV knows they need more than just help with their studies: They need encouragement, stability and the kind of patient guidance that can lead a child out of a traumatic childhood and into a bright future.
Martin knows this because he’s walked into strangers’ homes as a foster child, hoping they’d like him enough to give him a bed and make him part of the family. He knows because he’s felt the debilitating stress that comes from not knowing where he was going to live. Knows because there was a time when he stopped trying.
“In seventh grade, I gave up,” he said. “I wasn’t able to focus, and school was my last priority.”
Martin is now a 22-year-old University of Washington graduate with dreams of running for Seattle City Council. He credits a Treehouse mentor/advocate named Kevin with helping him survive his childhood and become an educated man of substance and promise.
When you’re a kid who’s been told by your family that you’re no good, that you’ll probably end up in jail or on drugs, that you’ll never amount to anything, having someone believe in you is a game-changer, Martin said.
“I always had goals of success, but I didn’t know how to get there,” Martin said. “He was someone who was constantly there.”
Treehouse serves more than 5,000 foster youth like Martin each year, providing education and support services to help them succeed in school and enjoy as happy a childhood as possible.
Only 35 percent of students in foster care graduate from high school, compared to 80 percent of their peers, according to a 2011 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The reason: frequent changes of school, lack of basic skills and emotional trauma caused by upheaval and abuse.
Treehouse is focused on erasing the graduation gap by 2017, and it works with students at 26 King County middle and high schools to make that happen.
Treehouse’s advocates closely monitor risk indicators for the students assigned to them, and intervene quickly to keep the kids on track. Students learn problem-solving and how to advocate for themselves. And they receive tutoring, college and career planning, and other services based on their needs.
For Martin, who was born into foster care, Treehouse’s services led not just to graduation, but to college, something he never imagined possible only a decade ago.
Martin said he lived with his grandmother in Seattle until Child Protective Services removed him from her care for recurring physical and emotional abuse. He was 11.
He was placed with an aunt he’d never met and was referred to Treehouse, which assigned him an education advocate. Martin said the advocate was the first person to tell him how smart he was.
“I was not open to him,” Martin recalled. “I was not ready to be friendly or nice. It was hard to get motivated. But the thing about him was that he didn’t quit. He was always trying.”
When Martin was 12, his aunt told him that she and her five children would be moving to California – without him.
Martin began spending weekends and school breaks with prospective foster families, hoping for a match. But nothing worked out. Another aunt he’d never met took him in, and he met a brother and a sister he didn’t know existed.
Still, he said, he withdrew even further, and became increasingly angry and rebellious. Eventually, he gave up on school.
But Kevin, the Treehouse advocate, kept on him and showed him how to do better.
“I had 15 missing assignments out of 20, but the five I did complete, I got all A’s,” Martin said. “I just wasn’t doing the work. The Treehouse specialist was, ‘You’re so smart. You could do so well. You have to find the motivation.'”
It took time for the words to sink in.
“I know, for me, it didn’t hold a lot of weight,” Martin said. “I wanted to hear those things from my family. Sad, but it wasn’t going to happen. Somebody saying it is better than nobody saying it.”
Kevin met regularly with Martin. Made sure he went to his classes and did his homework. Talked to him about what was going on in his head and in his life. Asked him challenging questions, and pushed him to work harder.
“He was someone who was constantly there,” Martin said.
In his freshman year at Rainier Beach High School, Martin suddenly found traction. He said he made the honor role with a 3.6 GPA, and in his sophomore year he was invited to testify at a legislative hearing on foster youth.
He said he thought to himself, “I can do something. I’m not a failure.” For the longest time, I didn’t expect much for myself. College didn’t seem like an option because nobody said it was. I couldn’t even understand the process until someone sat me down and explained it.”
He needed and received a lot of support in high school, he said.
“I realized there was a cycle to keep myself motivated,” he said. “Part of being self-aware is finding the support.”
He learned how to manage relationships. How to build, not burn bridges. How to speak to teachers. He enrolled in Running Start, a program that helps high-school students earn early college credits.
Success built more success. He started playing football. Started seeing himself as a person who could make things happen. A man with a place in the world, and a promising future after high school.
Martin’s face lights up when he recalls the day he received his college acceptance letter from the University of Washington.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” he said. “I was crying.” He called Kevin, his Treehouse advocate, and said, “Guess what?” Kevin didn’t miss a beat: “You’ve been accepted to the University of Washington.”
“It was an amazing thing to know I could fulfill my goals,” he said.
Martin struggled in college but figured it out, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He’s now working for Treehouse as an education programs assistant, helping foster children with their studies.
Martin said his experiences “help me meet them where they’re at. There were things said to me in seventh grade that I didn’t get until I was a senior in college. At some point it clicks.”
Martin says he will apply for graduate school for political science or social work at the University of Washington or Seattle University. And he’s eyeing a run for Seattle City Council in 2014.
“Every child deserves an equal opportunity to choose their dream,” he said. “We’re responsible for our children. We as a society, have to take responsibility for the young people who have no one there.
“I want to run for office. I want to effect large-scale change,” he said. “I really feel the sky’s the limit right now.”