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Purpose Prize Winner: Judy Cockerton

Her work to change the lives of foster care children breaks new ground in community support

A news story about a 5-month-old boy living in foster care who'd been kidnapped right out of his crib — never to be found — shook Judy Cockerton. Within months, Cockerton, her husband and their two children, ages 12 and 18, became a foster family to two sisters, ages 5 months and 17 months. But Cockerton wanted to do more — and she wanted to do it by helping others do more for foster care children.

She had a theory: "Americans think there are only two ways you can support a child placed in the public foster care system: You either step up and become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care," says Cockerton, 61, of Easthampton, Mass. "That's too much to ask of most people."

That thinking inspired Cockerton, a former teacher and toy store owner, to establish the Treehouse Foundation in 2002 — an undertaking that would help earn Cockerton the 2012 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation, sponsored by AARP. The foundation's goal: to create opportunities to support foster care kids, even for people who can't foster the children or adopt them. Collaborating with a private developer and a child-services agency, the foundation opened within three years a nurturing, permanent, mixed-income housing development for foster kids.

Named the Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow, the development looks like a typical cul-de-sac neighborhood: families hanging out on front porches, kids riding bikes, retirees walking dogs. The 60 rental homes don't suggest anything out of the ordinary, either.

But what sets Treehouse apart is the carefully selected composition of its residents. The 12 townhouses are reserved for families who have adopted or are planning to adopt foster children; the 48 cottages are reserved for people 55 and older who are committed to supporting the families as "honorary grandparents." Treehouse has been a permanent home for about 50 former foster kids.

A well-used community center provides space for everything from support groups and committee meetings to movie nights and potlucks. And there's a team of on-site social workers, property managers and Treehouse Foundation staff members for additional support.

The foundation has developed some innovative programs with partners in the region, including arts organizations, social services agencies and even the local rowing club — all opportunities for everyday citizens to engage with at-risk children. Two other nonprofits that Cockerton started complement all of this: Sibling Connections reunites brothers and sisters separated while in foster care, and the recently piloted Birdsong Farm will provide educational enrichment programs year-round to foster kids.

Now Cockerton is focused on bringing together diverse people with a stake in the success of foster care children — from social workers to state officials, families to philanthropists — to think creatively about how to change the foster care system, in part by developing programs that other communities can replicate.

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