When Blandy Inzunza graduated from Ballard High School, she got a suitcase full of gifts: a raincoat, gift cards, other little things that “were all super meaningful,” Inzunza remembers, and one big thing, a laptop.
“I could never imagine having something that nice for graduating high school,” said Inzunza, now 22.
The gifts came from Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports current or previous foster care youth, focused in large part on helping them achieve in school.
Graduating at all wasn’t something Inzunza could imagine at one point. Placed with foster parents when she was 15, with a months-old baby, she came from a family of eight kids — none of whom have graduated high school, she said. A high school diploma wasn’t “normal,” she said. “I’d never seen it before.”
Treehouse, one of 13 nonprofits that benefits from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need, helped get her through high school, with coaching that she says kept her focused, and paying for everything from extracurricular activities to a yearbook to an expensive calculator needed for math classes. She didn’t have to worry about clothes for her or her daughter either, because she could shop at a Treehouse store offering free items, including holiday gifts.
She simply wouldn’t have graduated without Treehouse, she said.
Now a mother of two, Inzunza has gone on to more previously unimagined heights, as a Seattle University sophomore taking premed classes. Treehouse, dedicated to helping their clients become independent adults, and providing foster kids the support system many others take for granted, has stayed by her side.
College application guidance and fees, apartment furniture, grocery and gas money, “just anything I need really, I just ask them,” she said. That includes moral support, from a Treehouse coach she says is almost like a mom.
Treehouse CEO Lisa Chin notes foster children are some of the most vulnerable and overlooked. One can see that in education statistics; there has long been a stark gap in the graduation rate between students in the foster system and their peers. In 2013, for example, foster kids in Washington’s public schools had a four-year graduation rate of 36.5%, compared with 76.4% for those not in foster care, and lower than for English language learners, migrants, low-income students, and those with disabilities.
But the picture is improving for foster youth, who last year had a four-year graduation rate of 50.4%.
“Almost all of that directly or indirectly can be traced to Treehouse,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who has worked closely on foster care issues. “When a kid misses third period … they’re the ones that track down the kid. They say, ‘let’s meet at Starbucks after school and get the homework done.’ “
Treehouse started its high school program, Graduation Success, nine years ago after retooling its academic approach to provide more intensive coaching and a focus on students’ own goals. Three-quarters of those who stay in the program graduate in five years, according to the organization.
Carlyle said that kind of hard data made expanding Treehouse’s high school program one of his top priorities in the last legislative session. The Legislature allocated nearly $5 million to make it happen.
The expansion will bring in 600 students a year on top of the 1,300 the program currently serves, and take it from 50 school districts statewide to as many as 220. That means spreading out from the Interstate 5 and Interstate 90 corridors to places like Forks, on the Olympic Peninsula, and towns along the Canadian border, even if they have only a couple of foster youth.
“We’re thrilled and we are in a massive hiring push now,” Chin said. In addition, she said, “We’re thinking through our models, we’re trying new things and we’re embracing technology.”
Treehouse is also trying to raise the million dollars it says it needs, on top of state funds, to accomplish this.
And that’s for only one of the nonprofit’s programs. It also supports several hundred people in its post-high school program, gives out thousands of holiday gifts and items of clothing, and advocates for policies in Olympia aimed at ending education inequities.
During the pandemic, as many foster youth struggled even more in school, Treehouse received federal funding to provide tutoring to kids outside its programs. The state also tasked the agency with distributing $1.65 million in pandemic relief funds to foster care alumni between ages 23 and 26 — a difficult task because Treehouse would first have to find as many of the estimated 2,800 qualifying young people as it could.
And the clock was ticking. All of the money, available in early summer, had to be distributed by Sept. 30 or it would be returned.
“Maybe not this time,” Dawn Rains, Treehouse’s chief policy and strategy officer said she almost said. The agency was stretched thin because of the pandemic. In a conversation with the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Rains recalled, “They said to me you are quite literally the only organization that knows how to do this.
“So I said OK, of course.” Treehouse combed through its lists of young people formerly served, and alerted the media and other nonprofits about the need to contact foster care alumni.
Zipporah Bradwell, a 26-year-old who was in foster care as a teen, said at first she didn’t understand why she was getting emails from Treehouse over the summer. “What is this?” she asked herself. Bradwell finally called Treehouse, learned about the federal funding and soon received $1,000.
“Treehouse actually saved us,” she said.
The unexpected bonanza let Bradwell and her husband catch up on rent for their Everett apartment. They had fallen behind after recently moving back to Washington from Georgia. Pregnant with their third child, Bradwell had been working here as a leasing agent but left the job because of preeclampsia-related fainting. Her husband, a veteran, was having a hard time finding work amid the pandemic.
All that was still the case when, about a month later, Bradwell got another email out of the blue from Treehouse. More money was available.
Treehouse had given $1,000 to about 660 foster alumni. It had $1 million left, with a week to go before the deadline, Rains said. Treehouse did a second round of funding, varying the amount based on need.
Bradwell got an additional $3,000. Again, it came at just the right time, as she and her husband were about to fall behind on rent again. “I basically cried on the phone with the lady from Treehouse.”
In October, the state turned to Treehouse again to distribute another pool of money: a month’s worth of payments for those aging out of the foster care system after turning 21. Gov. Jay Inslee authorized the payments after a federal moratorium, enacted because of the pandemic, expired.
Since then, Treehouse, along with other advocates for foster youth, have been pressing the governor to continue the payments, arguing these young people are still struggling amid the pandemic. Inslee included roughly $10.6 million in his proposed budget, released Thursday, for monthly stipends through the end of the biennium for the hundreds affected. Still, advocates worry how they will cope in the months before the Legislature may act.
Meanwhile, the organization has hired someone to think through the services Treehouse can provide to young adults. Chin calls this area critically important given the time it takes many people to find their way and become independent.
Inzunza and Bradwell seem to be on paths to get there, both saying their children are their motivation. Like Inzunza, Bradwell wants to enter the medical field. With ongoing help from Treehouse, including giving her a laptop, Bradwell is studying at Everett Community College with the aim of becoming a nurse.
“I plan to graduate. I have no choice,” Bradwell said. “It’s going to happen.”