Five years had passed since anyone “new” had joined the Shuman household.
Deborah and Lanny Shuman, a public schoolteacher and a Seattle city employee, had welcomed nine children from foster care into their home over the years. But by 1996, their foster care license was on the verge of expiring, and their kids — including seven who they had adopted so far — were growing up.
Then the phone rang. On the other end: a representative from Child Protective Services who urgently needed to find a foster family for newborn twins.
“I was surprised that anyone was calling about a placement at all, much less twins that had been born the same day,” remembers Deborah, 70, who goes by Debbie and retired this year.
“And would I please come pick them up?” the caller asked. Debbie had to be convinced a friend wasn’t playing a practical joke.
“I didn’t have any bottles, I didn’t have any equipment,” she said. “I didn’t have duplicates of anything.”
Within hours, a Seattle-based nonprofit called Treehouse had outfitted the 7-pound boys with all the basics: matching slings, a stroller, car seats. Debbie keeps old pictures of the boys, wrapped in handmade flannel blankets that they received from Treehouse. “Treehouse really saved our skin,” she said.
The nonprofit, which supports children through foster care and into early adulthood, was able to provide the supplies on short notice because it operates an expansive, department store-like space in Rainier Valley where foster children can stock up on free clothes, school supplies, toys and basic hygiene products. Its inventory includes overstock from corporate donors and gently used or new items from individuals.
The Shumans’ children went to the store — which used to be called “the Warehouse” — many times over the years. And Debbie has witnessed the wonders the store has done for her own children and many of those she’s taught in the classroom.
Debbie worked for years as a teacher at Ryther, a Seattle residential treatment facility for children, and remembers her students glowing when they came to class with a new jacket or dress from Treehouse. “That’s part of what’s special about it. It’s just this normalizing, equalizing agency in everything they do, and the store would be one of those things.”
Treehouse is one of a dozen nonprofits that benefits from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy campaign. It was founded in 1988 by a group of social workers and now serves nearly 8,000 Washington children and young adults each year.
Its programs provide direct support for foster children through a wide range of programs. Specialists in its Graduation Success Program, for example, offer children academic coaching and help them graduate from high school on time. Other programs provide one-on-one support as students earn their diploma and seek housing, a job or a path to a trade or higher education.
Built to last
Debbie was just a few years into her career teaching special education at Green Lake Elementary when, in 1967, she met Lanny, whose son Keith attended the school. Lanny joined the special education committee, where Debbie was a member.
Debbie always liked children, and had begun fostering shortly before they met. As the pair began their life together, they fostered at least five children Debbie met or taught at school. The first who stayed for good was Monica, who was 4 years old at the time, and has cerebral palsy. In 1988, the couple married.
Over the past 40 or so years, Lanny and Debbie have adopted 10 children, and fostered several more, including the twins.
“Nobody would have ever planned for what we did,” said Lanny, 80, who is now retired. “With each kid it seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Many of the children are in touch with their birthparents or extended families; some now have children of their own. The Shumans’ two youngest, 10-year-old Giovanni and 20-year-old Antonio, still live at home and have used Treehouse’s services. They have found their own ways to give back: Every Friday, for instance, Giovanni and Lanny deliver food to families who live in public housing apartments.
As school closures stretch on during the pandemic, Treehouse has adapted most of its services — including the way it operates the store. Families used to show up to shop; now, a small team of volunteers fills children’s and young adults’ online orders.
In mid-November, Treehouse Store and program manager Victoria Kutasz gave a virtual tour of the 9,000-square-foot space, which includes dressing rooms, a sea of clothing racks, a toy section and a backroom where volunteers sort inventory and pack orders. Volunteers have shipped hundreds of masks over the past several months, she said. Other popular requests this year: comfy clothes, basics such as soap and shampoo, and board games.
Carla Richards, of Mercer Island, processes donations and tags clothes and other goods as a volunteer three times each week.
“The ability to try and provide something for these people who in the best of times have a struggle, it is something we all consider seriously while we’re there,” she said. “We realize that even in this horrific time we can try and provide some support, some stability.”
When the store’s doors were open for in-person shopping, it mostly served children living in King County. Its new online service now allows the agency to serve children statewide. “That really is the story of the store for the last nine months,” Kutasz said. “Not just tackling the obstacles that were put in place for us, but building something that will be a lasting, new part of our program.”
Treehouse has been a resource for the Shumans for decades. The agency helped pay for their children’s soccer programs, piano lessons, camps — and found a way to support them through emergencies, such as the sudden arrival of the twins 24 years ago.
“I mostly remember picking through the [store’s] stuffed animals bin,” said Lanny and Debbie’s daughter Jennifer, 22, who lives in Northgate. Jennifer also had a “Treehouse advocate” — a professional who helped Jennifer and her family navigate difficult situations at school.
Treehouse has stepped in for their kids on many occasions, the Shumans say. “There’s an attitude at the school district that when Treehouse sends somebody … everybody sits up straight in their chairs,” Lanny said.
The family has grown in more ways than one: they’ve navigated racial prejudice from outsiders — many of the Shumans’ children are Black, Native American or Latino — and overcome pain when foster children they took in were adopted by someone else, as the twins were when they were around 4 years old. They also had lots of fun: The family has taken trips to Mexico and Sucia Island and traveled to Minnesota to meet extended biological family members and for a Native American naming ceremony.
“This is not a project, this is not a do-gooding, this is not, ‘Yeah, we go to church,’” Debbie said. “This is not because God told us to do this in some sort of obvious or overt way. This is just our family.”