Monday, February 6, 2023
Feb. 6, 2023

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Former Washington foster youths aim to make life better for kids in the system


SEATTLE — As rain pours down outside foster youth support organization Treehouse’s office on a gloomy fall day, a group is gathered in a brightly lit conference room, considering the nonprofit’s future.

“Not all foster care is equal,” said Andrew Berube, who went into foster care when he was 13 years old. Now 22, he’s part of the first cohort of a new fellowship program with Treehouse that builds on the philosophy that children know their wants and needs as they grow, and that making a lasting, positive impact on the systems they experience means bringing more of them to the table. Treehouse is one of 13 nonprofits benefiting from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.

Over the next several months, the fellows will work on projects and advocacy at the state and local levels. They’re also working as expert consultants and collaborators on the organization’s next five-year strategic plan, asking critical questions and providing insight from their own experiences. Treehouse served 6,379 children and youth last year, providing thousands of them guidance and resources on their path to graduating from high school, and supporting foster youth so they can access basic needs, like housing.

Berube’s statement was met with nods and murmurs of agreement from the seven other young people sitting around the table. At one point, Berube was dropped off at a group home without being told, he said. Lacee Morgan, 25, went into foster care at 17. She was placed in a group home she said felt like jail. Amir Yusuf, 20, was sent there too after being removed from a home that was too far from the school he was going to.

Sometimes kids are placed in certain foster homes because of their behaviors, said Katie Buxton, 25. Other times it’s just wherever there’s enough space. She doesn’t think either reason is right.

While their stories vary, some in the group say an all too common thread of kids’ experiences in foster care is the lack of voice young people have when they’re moved around — or in many other aspects of their lives.

“We know the systems need lots of changes and we want to be a part of that, and we also need young people informing the way we do that and being there with us through all steps of the process,” said Claire Smith, Treehouse’s manager of youth-adult partnership.

Partnering with youth happens in different ways, Smith added, including through other well-established programs the organization offers.

Smith facilitates their discussion when it lulls — which isn’t often. Part of her job is organizing the group and helping shape what this new fellowship program looks like.

Recruiting applicants was the easy part. Narrowing the nearly 100 people who applied down to the inaugural eight was much more difficult. Smith said it was essential to find a cohort that represented a diverse mix of experiences in foster care and in the job market, and who could commit the time to make it work. Part of the process was ensuring the selected fellows were comfortable in a trailblazing role of sorts too, as the fellowship gets off the ground.

“It’s taken a lot of commitment to be vulnerable,” Smith said. “They’re signing up for this thing that nobody can tell them how it went because it’s the first time we’re doing it.”

Smith says seeing the thoughtfulness the fellows have brought to this work has exceeded her expectations, but she doesn’t want them to feel like they have to stay in the foster care field forever, especially because of the trauma many of them have experienced. That, combined with the skills they’re gaining doing this work, is why she says the fellowship is a powerful professional growth opportunity.

The fellows are paid part-time staff members with Treehouse, and Smith encourages them to make connections with people within and beyond foster care systems so they can explore what else they might want to do with their futures.

“It takes a lot of strength to do your own healing work … we don’t want to trap them in this world,” Smith said.

Part of that networking and professional growth will come with the advocacy work they do during the upcoming legislative session — it will also come with projects they’ll start working on with other Treehouse staff in January. Those range in focus, including marketing and communications work to tell the stories of foster children responsibly and powerfully, analyzing data to get better feedback on programs from the children and youth Treehouse serves, and looking more closely at how to support youth who experienced foster care and the incarceration system.

Morgan wants to advocate for more housing development projects — right now she said, the affordable housing process is slow and waitlists are long, and she knows the toll living on the streets can take on a person’s mental and physical health.

“In my experience, just being homeless kind of makes you go crazy in a way,” she said. “Some people … thought it was my fault and that I wanted to be out in the streets, which isn’t true.”

Morgan said the fellowship is a chance to help prevent other people from experiencing the same types of losses she has, and give hope to young people who may be struggling.

Before the fellowship, Treehouse played a critical role in her well-being, she said. It provided her access to nice clothes and hygiene products — and a sense of belonging.

“It was somewhere where I could feel good about myself … they just accepted me no matter what,” she said.

Like Morgan, all the fellows have spent years navigating systems not necessarily built for them, with many receiving guidance and essential support through Treehouse as they did so.

The fellowship program lasts just 10 months, but their first task is a big one. Treehouse has its sights set on statewide expansions of services, including mentorship, financial help, and staff who can advocate for foster kids’ educational needs. With finite resources, the organization wants the fellows to help pinpoint where Treehouse should target that growth.

The fellows point out limitations in access for places like Eastern Washington, a region far from Treehouse’s Seattle roots. They question why the organization wouldn’t prioritize serving more homeless youth, too, as others point out the need for a strong referral network with similar nonprofits in order to preserve the quality of programs as they expand. There are points of near-unanimous agreement, and those that elicit a range of opinions, but throughout each question or challenge posed to the group, no ideas are dismissed.

The process is helping some heal from their traumas. Some are using their experience of inequities in the system to make it better. But they all agree that the fellowship has already changed them in some ways too.

“Being able to influence decisions … that’s probably the biggest impact so far,” Berube said.

Weiss Andrews, 20, says it’s given him hope for the future, and has supported his own personal growth.

“It’s helping me think about my values and understand where I’m at in my life and what I want to do,” Andrews said.