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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Janis Avery: Investing in young adults who’ve experienced foster care

By Janis Avery Treehouse

Children and youth in foster care can be seen as a collection of problems to solve. Since our founding in 1988, Treehouse has seen them as kids – kids who deserve to have music lessons, play team sports and sing songs with new friends at camp.

Twenty four years ago, I interviewed to become the executive director at Treehouse. They were the only agency I knew of that focused on supporting kids’ developmental needs and interests instead of focusing on trying to solve their problems. I wanted the job, but had zero experience leading an organization. I was a social worker with enthusiasm to spare and much more potential than proven experience.

After my second interview for the position, I didn’t hear anything. So I called. Then I started calling every week. Eventually, they said: “Fine, you’re hired!”

Treehouse saw potential in me. That’s the same thing we do with kids and youth in foster care. We see their promise. We invest in their potential.

My wife and I adopted both of our kids from foster care. When they were growing up, I took them to community swim every week for 10 years. It was a sweet way to be together on a regular basis. Our son was in martial arts and really excelled there. Our daughter was in Girl Scouts, her church youth group and dance classes. I think of those activities as little moments of light shining through the many challenges.

At Treehouse, we introduce sparks of light to children who have been traumatized by too many negative experiences. It would be great if we could just love away the pain. It just doesn’t work that way, at least not instantly. Things can be going along fairly well, and then setbacks happen. You can feel like they’re starting over when they’re not. I now know all of those little moments matter and build over time.

Young adulthood is a particularly tenuous time for all of us. One time our daughter, who we adopted from foster care, was facing an eviction. She owed $400 which she couldn’t pay, then it ballooned to $1,600. But she didn’t get evicted. Why not? Because her parents paid the bill.

That is what we do, because as our kids become young adults, they get parking tickets and forget to renew their car insurance. They do these things because they’re still learning. If they have a network of support when everything blows up – people who see their potential – they can regroup. For most youth in foster care, that support isn’t there when they need it most, and a mistake could mean disaster.

Treehouse has had tremendous success increasing the extended graduation rate from less than 50 percent to 82 percent for youth in our Graduation Success program. We recognize that a high school diploma is an absolutely critical step. But, it’s not a destination, and it is not enough.

That’s why our latest program innovation – Launch Success – is pivotal.

With Launch Success, we provide young adults ongoing academic and career coaching, and access to funding for school fees and job supplies. We also work with them to secure housing as we connect them to community resources – all well into their mid-20s. We partner with each participant to build a strong network of supports around them. Together, we work toward career goals, so they can truly thrive.

When we asked young adults what we could do better as an organization. Every one of them said the same thing: We need Treehouse with us every step of the way as we make the long journey into adulthood.

Thanks to Launch Success, we’ll be here with continued support until young adults achieve three absolutely critical adult milestones: earn a degree or career credential, land a living wage job and secure stable housing.

All of those years ago, Treehouse saw my potential and invested in me, just like we do for more than 7,000 kids and youth in foster care every year. And now, they’ll have the support they need for a successful launch into adulthood.

Janis Avery is chief executive officer of Treehouse. For more about Treehouse, visit

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