Meet a 2012 Purpose Prize Winner: Judy Cockerton, Treehouse Foundation
for the greater good
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. She thought about all the other kids in foster care, the ones no one hears about until something awful happens.
Soon after, Cockerton called a family meeting with her husband, son and daughter, then 18 and 12 years old, and together they talked about how they could help. Within months, in 1999, they became a foster family to two sisters, ages 5 months and 17 months. Eventually they adopted the younger girl.
But Cockerton, in her late 40s then, still didn’t think she’d done enough.
In learning more about the foster care system, she was particularly struck by the grim data compiled by the advocacy group Fostering Connections Resource Center: Each year, of the 30,000 foster kids in the United States who become adults without landing in permanent homes, one in four are incarcerated within two years of leaving the system; more than one-fifth become homeless; and fewer than 3 percent earn college degrees.
“It was so dismal,” Cockerton 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.”
She had a theory: “Americans think there are only two ways they 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, and that’s too much to ask of most people.”
That realization inspired Cockerton to found the Treehouse Foundation. The foundation’s goal: to create opportunities for people to support foster care kids even if they don’t have the capacity to foster or adopt them. A former teacher who became owner of two Boston-area toy stores, Cockerton sold the successful chain in 2001 at age 51 to devote herself to the foundation full time.
Wanting to create a nurturing, permanent community for foster kids, Cockerton brought together the foundation, a private housing developer and a local children’s services agency. Within three years they created multigenerational, mixed-income housing in Easthampton, Mass.
Watch: 2012 Purpose: Judy Cockerton (Treehouse Foundation)