After 24 years, Janis Avery, the CEO of Treehouse will formally step down from her position this Spring. Avery has been a transformational leader in advancing the mission of Treehouse, to give kids in foster care across the state of Washington a brighter childhood and future.
Avery has her master’s in social work from the University of Washington and joined Treehouse in 1995 as the organization’s first managing director.
Back then the Treehouse supported just 10 employees with a budget under $500,000. Today the organization employees a staff of 148 with a budget of 17 million.
While she is formally stepping away as CEO, her impact on the foster care systems in Washington and subsequently Whatcom County has been profound and will have a positive lasting impact. Under Avery’s leadership, the graduation rates for youth in Treehouse programs have dramatically increased by improving access to education.
In the United States only about half of youth in foster care graduate high school. However, Treehouse youth are represented well above that average. About 69 percent of Treehouse’s youth graduate on-time and 77 percent graduate in five years.
“It’s our goal to continue growing,” Avery said. “We would like to serve every youth in high school and young adulthood who is in foster care or has experienced foster care statewide.”
Avery and Rep. Ruth Kagi were pioneers for a 20-year push on an initiative that would allow child welfare systems and the state education systems to exchange data.
Her tenacity to overcome cultural, technical and pragmatic obstacles on the initiative means that Washington’s school districts are more aware of who is in foster care and are better prepared to address educational gaps for those students.
One of her most important accomplishments was setting the goal in King County and now statewide, to have all youth in foster care the opportunity to graduate high school at the same rate as their peer group.
“There are not a lot of organizations that take on big ambitious goals like these and I am proud of our board of directors agreeing to do them because they are highly risky to make happen and there was very little evidence that they would be possible,” Avery said. “We have achieved these goals due to an incredibly philanthropic community in Washington State and I am grateful to the over 11,000 donors and 3,000 active volunteers every year who come together in support of these youth to help them have the lives that we think all children should have.”
The future goal for Treehouse is to achieve statewide service for youth in foster care by 2022.
“The key is to be thoughtful about and lead around racial equity,” Avery said. “The impact of poverty and racism have a great effect on our students in foster care.”
In the state of Washington, Native American children are three times more likely and African American children two times than their white peers to enter foster care, according to the Treehouse website. “The approach that Janis takes of looking at everything through a lens of equity contributes to so much of the growth we have had and the kids benefit from that being at the core of our work,” education specialist for Treehouse, Marissa Len, said.
In recent years the organization has expanded its services to youth in Whatcom and Skagit County. According to 2019 data from the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the total number of Open Out-of-Home Care cases in Whatcom County is approximately 263. Treehouse serves more than 50 youth across all of its programs in Whatcom County.
Treehouse programs collaborate with school districts and local non-profits to ensure they are as effective as possible. Abby Trimble has been with Treehouse four years and is the education program services manager in Skagit and Whatcom County.
Trimble works with four school districts; Bellingham, Burlington-Edison, Mt. Vernon and Sedro Wooley. She also partners with local non-profits in Bellingham, Youthnet and Blue Skies For Children to advance Treehouse programs to youth in foster care.
“Even though she doesn’t live and work directly in Whatcom County Janis has a reputation of excellence here that we have very much relied on,” Trimble said. “We have grown really substantially as an organization and we serve a lot more students than we did when she first started at Treehouse.”
Several Treehouse Programs currently operate in Whatcom County. Educational Advocacy has been in Whatcom County since 1999 and works with pre-kindergarten through 12th grade to removes barriers to school progress.
Holiday Magic has been in Whatcom County for about 10 years and works to provide youth in foster care with a special gift for the holidays.
The Treehouse driver’s assistance program has been in Whatcom County for two years and guides youth through navigating driver’s education and permit processes to obtain a license.
Graduation Success has been working in Whatcom County for one year and helps high school students to earn a diploma or GED.
“One of the most exciting things about being in a new region is encouraging folks in the community to get involved,” Trimble said. “We are wanting to grow our footprint and those community partnerships are an essential function.”
Treehouse provides multiple outlets for businesses and individuals to get involved.
“Businesses have been tremendous partners,” Avery said. “We are looking for that help in Whatcom County specifically because it is a place where we have been serving youth in larger numbers for a relatively short time.”
In the past businesses have sponsored holiday drives for Treehouse and hosted job shadowing opportunities for high schoolers. The advocacy action center on the Treehouse website allows anyone to reach out to state legislatures to advocate on behalf of youth in foster care.
“Everyone can have a voice in our state,” Trimble said. “We know there are lots of barriers for the youth we serve and we are excited to be a part of the solution to make sure kids are receiving an equitable education and we know it will only get better the more folks we get involved.”