Marshelle Frelix found support in her new family and at Treehouse, a nonprofit that benefits from donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Treehouse helps foster kids stay on track and beat the odds to graduate at the same rate as other Washington students.
During that bleak period when she was bouncing from one shelter, group home or foster family to another, Marshelle Frelix did her best to keep up with school work.
Surrounded by people she didn’t know, the 14-year-old would sit up reading until lights out. She’d wake before 5 to catch a bus for the long ride from Kirkland or Bothell or wherever the state had placed her, to the school she attended in Renton. But the constant disruption, uncertainty and loneliness wore her down. One month, she moved seven times.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it to college,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘I’m not going to even finish high school.’ I didn’t believe in myself.”
But Frelix didn’t give up — thanks in large part to a family that welcomed her into their hearts and a nonprofit called Treehouse that helped her get back on track academically and personally.
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“Treehouse is basically like another parent to me,” said Frelix, who is now 19 and was accepted at the University of Washington, Tacoma, after she graduated from Kentridge High School.
One of a dozen organizations that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, Treehouse supports kids who have spent time in foster care. In 2012, when the organization launched its marquee program Graduation Success, fewer than half of foster kids in King County graduated from high school within five years. This year, the rate was nearly 83 percent for Treehouse students in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane counties — on a par with all public high-school students.
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Now, Treehouse is working to expand that success to all foster kids in Washington by 2022. In the coming year, it will move into Skagit, Whatcom, Thurston, Benton and Franklin counties.
The organization, which serves more than 7,000 kids a year, also is looking beyond graduation with a pilot program to help former foster kids earn a college diploma or professional certificate and enter adulthood with a better shot at success.
“It’s more a family parenting model of care, where we don’t say: ‘job done’ after high school,” said Treehouse CEO Janis Avery.
Under that pilot project, Treehouse continues to assist Frelix, who has struggled to stay in college while working and living on her own.
Without intervention, Frelix’s life could have followed a grim trajectory. Born with cocaine in her system, she was taken from her drug-addicted mother at birth. Frelix was adopted, but her family life was troubled and officials removed her from the household at the age of 14.
It was in a group home that she met Kyle Barrett, the man she now considers her dad. Barrett was working the graveyard shift, making sure the kids got to bed on time and up in the morning. He was touched by Frelix’s attempts to study, and frustrated at seeing so many young people with no one to love and guide them.
The two struck up a friendship, chatting in the evening about their lives and shared experiences — including basketball. For Frelix, the court was the only place she was able to forget her worries and feel happy. For Barrett, the game had been the only way to earn his father’s attention.
Though only in their mid-20s with two young children of their own, Barrett and his wife, Everlyn, decided to foster the bright teenager.
“I felt like I had to do something to help her,” he said.
Barrett had to quit his job at the group home to avoid any perceived conflict of interest. He and his family moved into a bigger house in Auburn they could barely afford so Frelix could have her own room as required by the state. After months of legal limbo, a judge finally approved the arrangement in October 2015.
“I think of it as the day an angel came into my life,” Frelix said. “They really sacrificed a lot for me.”
Almost equally momentous was when she met Merissa Humes, her Treehouse education specialist. Stationed at schools, specialists meet with each student at least once a week to talk about goals, problems and academic performance. Humes went above and beyond, sitting down with Frelix at least twice a week and becoming an integral presence the teenager could count on.
“When you’re in the system, a lot of people come in and out of your life,” Frelix said. “It’s hard to find someone who will always be there for you.”
Providing stability for young people whose lives are in chaos is a big part of Treehouse’s mission, Avery said. That’s why the organization pays its staff well and offers promotions that don’t take education specialists away from the front lines.
It’s also important to let the young clients set their own goals.
“Youth in foster care have a lot of people telling them what to do — judges, case workers, foster parents,” Avery said. Treehouse staff instead help young people envision the life they would like to be leading in their early 20s and map out a plan to achieve it.
Frelix knew she wanted to go to college, but wasn’t sure how to make it happen. Humes explained the process, helped her fill out admission forms and introduced her to administrators. A Treehouse program called Little Wishes paid application fees and helped buy her textbooks. The program also helps students cover school fees and the cost of participating in sports, band, driver’s education and other extracurricular activities.
At a free store called The Wearhouse, foster kids and their families can pick out clothing, school supplies, toys and household items. Stocked through donations, The Wearhouse distributes a million dollars’ worth of stuff every year.
To achieve its ambitious goal of helping all foster kids graduate from high school, Treehouse needs to increase its annual budget from about $15 million this year to $21 million by 2022, Avery said. About 20 percent of the organization’s budget comes from the state. The rest is from foundations and private donors.
Treehouse decided to launch its new program of extended support after surveys and interviews revealed that the post-high-school period is a time when many former foster kids spiral into despair and dysfunction as they confront the challenge of finding a place to live and supporting themselves, while also continuing their education.
Nationally, 70 percent of youth in foster care dream of attending college, but fewer than 3 percent go on to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Angela Griffin, Treehouse’s chief program officer, said her own son had a meltdown during his first semester of college and drove home to announce he was dropping out. She was able to convince him otherwise, but many former foster kids have no one to help them through similar crises. The trauma foster kids experience can also make it harder for them to weather setbacks and figure out how to overcome obstacles.
“They need someone they know they can reach out to,” Griffin said. “Someone who will advocate for them or guide them on how to advocate for themselves.”
Frelix, who chose to live on her own in Seattle after graduation, still has her foster parents, Kyle and Everlyn, to reach out to. Even so, she found herself overwhelmed by her job cleaning houses and the demands of her college courses in Tacoma. Her car broke down twice. At one point, she didn’t have enough money for gas.
She stopped going to school.
Now, she’s looking for an apartment closer to Tacoma — and hoping to resume her classes in business law and communications next semester.
Treehouse will be there to help her once again get back on track, Griffin said.
Despite her present turmoil, Frelix says she still hopes to achieve her goal of becoming a homicide detective. She’d also like to advocate for foster kids, pushing for a better safety net and more social workers to keep young people from falling through the cracks — like she almost did.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Treehouse, I don’t think I would have graduated,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have made it into college. I needed somebody in my life to guide me in the right direction.”