Amazing Third Acts
Judy Cockerton — winner of AARP’s 2012 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation — is re-envisioning and reinventing child foster care in America
By Richard J. Anthony, Sr.
When Judy Cockerton first entered the world of child welfare in 1999, she was the founding owner of two specialty toy stores, the mother of two teenagers, and 48 years old. After reading an article about the plight of children in foster care, Judy, her husband Arthur, daughter Jenna (13), and son Jesse (18) became a foster family to two sisters, ages 5 months and 17 months. Eventually, they adopted the younger girl, Brianna.
But Judy felt compelled to do more. “It was so dismal,” Judy recalls. “These children had social workers and professionals advocating for them. But I didn’t see a lot of regular folks out there in the world saying, ‘These children placed in the public foster system are worthy of our investment and our attention.’”
The cornerstone of Judy’s campaign to change the foster care “system” is her belief that “Americans think the only two ways they can support a child placed in foster care is to step up and either become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care, and that’s too much to ask of most people.”
Drawing on her entrepreneurial skills, Judy formulated a focused plan to recruit partners in her cause. In 2002, she founded the Treehouse Foundation, a nonprofit organization that “seeks to impact child welfare practice and promote public investment in our most vulnerable children through the development of innovative programs and practices . . . [and] to see every child rooted in family and community, and to cultivate collaborations and initiatives that support this goal.”
Judy’s first triumph, in 2006, was the development of Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow, Massachusetts — a multigenerational, mixed-income, planned community whose partners include arts organizations, social services agencies, and even the local rowing club. The innovative, award-winning community has 60 rental homes: 12 townhouses for families who have adopted or are planning to adopt foster children, plus 48 cottages for people age 55 and older, who support the families as “honorary grandparents.”
“Treehouse is like a small town, where you know your neighbors and people help each other out, especially the kids,” says one 60-year-old resident. “And now we’re seeing these kids grow into such wonderful young adults.”
Judy adds, “Having the older generation actively involved in our community is very important because grandparents fill a need youngsters have for stability and selfless love. They’re an indispensable safety net for our kids.”
“We are so moved by Judy’s steadfast commitment to providing unique learning opportunities for children in foster care by connecting them with older mentors in their communities,” says Barb Quaintance, senior vice president for volunteer and civic engagement at AARP. “She embodies the very spirit of service that is part of AARP’s mission to lead positive, multigenerational social change.”
So far, Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow has provided a permanent home for more than 50 former foster kids. And momentum is building. There is a Treehouse-inspired community in Oregon and one in the works in Arizona, both projects of independent nonprofits.
“Judy is an astoundingly effective collaborator,” says Harold Grotevant, who leads the Rudd Adoption Research Program. “It’s all because of Judy’s leadership that this atmosphere and collaboration can thrive.”
Judy also started two other nonprofits to help foster children: Sibling Connections reunites brothers and sisters separated while in foster care. Birdsong Farm provides educational enrichment programs year-round to foster kids.
Her most recent venture, the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) initiative, launched in late 2010, serves as a national model for regional investment in the success and well-being of children and families in public foster care.
Since 2001, when Judy Cockerton began her quest to “re-envision foster care,” she has inspired more than 600 people to help foster children in Massachusetts. Volunteers serve as mentors, tutors, and camp counselors. They teach foster kids how to read, plant gardens, and ride horses. They take them for nature walks and trips to the playground. They enrich the lives of children who crave healthy connections to caring adults.
“My vision is to create a menu of twelve replicable community-based programs that help Americans rethink, re-envision, and redesign foster care. My mission is to work with stellar individuals to create, launch, and sustain innovative programs and practices that support the development of enduring relationships for children who experience foster care in America. My legacy is to create a new reality for children who experience foster care and to pass that reality on to the next generation to improve upon!”
Judy recalls a special moment when her daughter, Jenna, gave her a glass paperweight with the quote, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”
“It never occurred to me that I would fail. Too much depends on it,” Judy says.