“I’m not going to play the victim,” said 18-year-old Noel Woods, a former foster child who is looking ahead to college with the help of Treehouse, a nonprofit that benefits from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. “What my past was isn’t who I am today.”

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It could have been easy for Noel Woods to become a casualty of her past.

The 18-year-old ran away from an abusive situation at home when she was only 8, suffered in her first foster placement and made some bad decisions during her early adolescence that threatened her academic career.

But with support from the woman who became her guardian, her community of faith and the help of Treehouse — a Seattle nonprofit organization founded in 1988 by social workers dedicated to helping foster kids — she says she is now focused clearly on the future.

Woods, who recently graduated from high school, is working as many hours as she can at a high-end department store and applying to colleges and internships with the goal of working one day as a computer programmer.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make.

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“I’m not going to play the victim,” she said in a recent interview. “What my past was isn’t who I am today.”

Woods’ earliest years as the only child of a single mother were good, she says. Although her tiny family struggled financially, she and her mother were close and took joyful day trips to Alki Beach, downtown Seattle and Woodinville. But her mother’s mental health deteriorated, and Noel knew something was wrong.

When she was in elementary school, she ran away from home, told officials at her school what was going on and was taken into state custody that same day, she said.

In her first foster home, she cried every day. She missed her mother, felt guilty about leaving her and felt isolated from the family she was placed with. Eventually, Pat Smith, a family friend whom Woods calls her “Gammie,” applied for third-party custody, and Woods was placed with her.

Around that same time she was introduced to Treehouse, one of the 12 agencies benefiting from The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy campaign.

Treehouse supports more than 7,000 youth in foster care each year and offers a wide variety of programs and services, from free haircuts, clothes and summer camp, to driver’s-education classes, tutoring and educational coaching.

It was a treat, Woods said, to take the dancing lessons at Northwest Tap Connection that Treehouse paid for through their Little Wishes program, and to have her hair done professionally for the first time.

“Having those experiences and opportunities was a blessing,” she said. “I used to call myself ugly and go into my room and isolate, but those gave me self-esteem and made me feel good about myself.”

As important as that was then, she said, it’s the educational coaching she got at Treehouse that probably helped her realign her priorities the most.

Treehouse for Kids

The nonprofit started by social workers is committed to providing youth in foster care with the academic and other essential support they need to graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers.

“That was the most important support I got,” she said. “It helped me get on track.”

Your dollars at work

Here’s what Treehouse can do with your donation:

$25: Pays for one student’s school sports fees.

$50: Pays for one application to college for one student.

$100: Buys one new head-to-toe outfit.

For information: http://www.treehouseforkids.org/about-treehouse/

Woods had been a good student until she got into high school. Subject to the same peer pressures and feelings of self-doubt that plague many teens, she began to skip class regularly. By the time she was a sophomore, she was so far behind, she said, she couldn’t catch up.

She began to work with an education specialist who helped her sort out her options and make some decisions. She discovered that she couldn’t fulfill her goal of graduating with her class if she stayed at Rainier Beach High School. So, she made what was a hard decision at the time and transferred to South Lake High School, an alternative school.

There, and at the summer schools she attended, she worked hard to make up her coursework and graduation requirements.

“When we first started working together, she already had made some decisions about the changes she wanted to make in her life,” said Emma Dixon, an educational specialist at Treehouse. “Part of what we did was make a plan for achieving those goals and then breaking it down into manageable pieces and steps.”

“She’s persistent, determined and self-reflective,” Dixon said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with her, see her overcome some frustrating things and watch her accomplish her goals.”

Noel Woods, left, helps foster mom Pat Smith wrap gifts while her foster sisters cover their eyes to keep the gifts a secret.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Noel Woods, left, helps foster mom Pat Smith wrap gifts while her foster sisters cover their eyes to keep the gifts a secret. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

In addition to meeting with Dixon weekly, Woods visited several college campuses and participated in a job workshop program at Treehouse, where she wrote her résumé, did mock interviews and picked out a business outfit. She landed her first job at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute through the Seattle Youth Employmentprogram, and then went on to work at Argosy Cruises.

During career-exploring missions, she visited Starbucks’ headquarters and Microsoft’s campus a half-dozen times.

Three months ago she learned — when she was greeted at school by teachers holding balloons — that she had passed the final test required for graduation.

“I was so happy, I cried,” she said.

In keeping with Treehouse’s mission to send young adults out into the world with sufficiency, Dixon is also working with Woods on practical living skills, such as saving money and getting a first apartment. Woods is currently living in a temporary situation but remains close to her Gammie and former foster siblings.

“I’m so thankful for Treehouse,” Woods said. “They are so amazing. They’ve given me so many experiences, and they’ve helped so much. I’ve still got troubles, but I’ve overcome a lot. I’m in a better place and I’m excited to see what happens next.”