Treehouse went through a sea change when it realized its education program wasn’t good enough. Now, the foster kids it works with have a higher graduation rate than the state average for all students.

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Every day, Abby Trimble texted high-school freshman Victoria Delk: Don’t forget to put away your tablet and do your homework.

And every day, Victoria didn’t pay attention.

That went on for months.

Then one day, Trimble, while playing soccer with friends, dashed off a text that went something like this: “I’m on the sidelines now, but I want you to do your homework.”

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“I felt bad,” Victoria recalled. Even during a soccer game, Trimble, an education specialist at Treehouse, which supports kids who have spent time in foster care, was taking time to try to help her.

“I started doing my homework. My grades started going up,” Victoria said.

Now a junior, she’s set on going to college. Her twin sister, Stephanie, also served by Treehouse, one of 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, is already taking classes at Green River College through Running Start.

Academic aspirations are a big deal for the twins, who entered foster care before they were 10 and were later adopted. Talking in their Auburn home, they noted their birth mother left school at 13.

Kids like Victoria and Stephanie face tough odds. Less than 50 percent of the state’s foster children graduate from high school within five years, compared with 82 percent of all public high-school students, according to recent Treehouse and state statistics.

“Every time a student gets pulled out of a home to live with strangers, that will impact the ability to study,” said Peggy Carlson, who oversees services for foster kids at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

On the other hand, 89 percent of foster kids served by Treehouse graduate in five years, as of 2016.

“Beyond our wildest dreams,” Jessica Ross, Treehouse’s chief development officer, said of that outcome. “That’s a statistic that’s really hard to move.”

In fact, some years ago, Treehouse realized it wasn’t improving the graduation rate for the foster kids it worked with.

Founded in 1988, the organization had been providing educational support for about 10 years, supplementing other programs for foster kids. It runs a free store in Rainier Valley called The Wearhouse, which offers clothes, toys and school supplies. Treehouse also gives out holiday toys and finances things that strain a foster family’s budget, like summer camps and sports and music lessons. All in all, it serves nearly 8,000 kids.

Your dollars at work

Treehouse supports kids who have spent time in foster care. The Seattle-based organization offers academic support, free clothing and other items, and funding for summer camps and extracurricular activities.

Samples of what Treehouse can do with your donation:

$25: Pays for a semester of school field trips.

$50: Pays for an application to college.

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

For information:

http://www.treehouseforkids.org/

Treehouse’s former education program offered tutoring and help with college planning, Ross recalled. It seemed to be making a difference for some students.

But a few years ago newly available statistics let the organization know that for the most part it wasn’t helping kids graduate. The education program “just wasn’t good enough,” Ross said.

“A real sea change” followed, she said.

1,000 kids and growing

Treehouse rethought its approach and launched a new program in 2012 that it calls Graduation Success. It entails weekly meetings between education specialists and middle- and high-school students to talk about grades, attendance and any behavior issues. The staffers and students set goals — crucially, in Treehouse’s model, ones voiced by the kids.

Leroy Rowe, now in college, is seen during his sophomore year at Renton High School. “This is around when my journey as a wrestler and an aspiring music teacher really began,” he recalled. (Leroy Rowe)
Leroy Rowe, now in college, is seen during his sophomore year at Renton High School. “This is around when my journey as a wrestler and an aspiring music teacher really began,” he recalled. (Leroy Rowe)

“It’s like a counselor, a tutor and a buddy all in one person,” said Leroy Rowe, recalling the education specialists he saw before graduating from Renton High School in 2016.

Now a Grays Harbor College sophomore studying to become a music teacher, he credits his education specialists with keeping him striving toward his goal: a 3.5 grade-point average.

When one of them learned he played the saxophone, she found him a tutor who studied music at the University of Washington. One day when Rowe, then in middle school,showed up at his education specialist’s office, he was presented with a brand-new sax, funded by a Treehouse donor.

Graduation Success has been so successful that Treehouse recently expanded from King County to Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish counties. It has about 1,000 kids in the program, and plans even more ambitious growth over the next five years.

“It’s our moral obligation to be across the state,” Ross said. To make that happen, Treehouse’s budget, dependent mostly on private donations, will need to grow from $13 million to $20 million.

“It’s a big ask,” Ross acknowledged.

Finding a safe place

When Victoria and Stephanie first met Trimble, things didn’t seem promising.

“I don’t like you,” Stephanie announced.

Looking back on it now, she realizes why. “I had trust issues,” she said.

When she and her sister were 6, their dad was deported to Mexico. The girls said their mom had her struggles and started leaving them alone with their brother, still in his early teens, for a month at a time.

One night, the police knocked on the door. “They asked us to come with them,” Victoria recalled. She later found out their mom had called and asked that the 9-year-olds and their brother be put in foster care.

That’s how they landed at the home of Nita and Mike Delk. Stephanie didn’t want to go in. Victoria barely talked. But the Delks showed patience, brought them to family events and encouraged them to get involved in school sports, which became a huge part of their lives.

“We need to stop searching for our safe place,” Victoria said they realized. “We already have one.”

Victoria, right, and Stephanie Delk share a laugh. The twins are among Treehouse clients overcoming tough odds. (Courtney Pedroza/The Seattle Times)
Victoria, right, and Stephanie Delk share a laugh. The twins are among Treehouse clients overcoming tough odds. (Courtney Pedroza/The Seattle Times)

Still, school wasn’t going great. They skipped periodically and didn’t always turn in homework.

Trimble seized opportunities to connect. She went to one of Victoria’s cross-country meets and regularly looked up her running times.

“That meant a lot to me,” Victoria said.

Trimble also attended the girls’ quinceañera, admiring the beautiful dresses made by Nita Delk, who had by then become the girls’ adopted mom. (Their brother, by then an adult, had moved to Kansas.)

“Every time she said she’d be there, she was,” Stephanie said of Trimble.

If they had a paper to turn in, she’d text them to make sure they did it. If they planned to talk with their mom about some issue, she’d ask how it went.

Trimble said it was her way of showing them that she was listening — and to remind them of things they committed to. She related everything to their goals. Sports — track and gymnastics as well as cross-country — were particularly important to Victoria, and she needed good grades to participate.

To access Running Start, Stephanie had to pass a test showing she was ready for a college-level English class. That would take daily studying, Trimble told her.

After three tries, Stephanie finally passed.

A victory just as big, in Trimble’s mind, came during a meeting at Stephanie’s high school this fall. A staffer suggested that Stephanie wasn’t eligible for Running Start because she received special-education services in high school. Stephanie argued the point, passionately.

“She just completely took hold of her educational path,” said Trimble, 28, who calls the meeting one of her proudest professional moments.

A few months ago Trimble started working in Seattle, leaving behind the Federal Way School District, including Victoria and Stephanie. Their new education specialist is Lydia Smith.

She was at their house as they spoke with obvious affection about Trimble.

“It’s important for y’all to know,” Smith said after a while, “it was really hard for Abby to let go of y’all.”

She treaded carefully, saying “I don’t want you to feel like I think I know you already.” What she wanted them to know was this, she said: “I live here. My kids are in this district. So I ain’t going nowhere.”

“This is my life’s work,” she continued. “I take care of y’all the way I want somebody to take care of my kids.”