Sometimes a cake is more than a cake.
Holly Handfield found this out at The Treehouse Community in Easthampton, Mass., when she agreed to teach her teenaged neighbor, Beth, how to make a carrot cake.
Beth (not her real name) has not had an easy life. She was born into a troubled family and ended up in foster care, a system that often can seem only slightly better than no system at all. Kids might be abused, separated from their siblings, shuttled from house to house with their possessions in garbage bags, and get little counseling or oversight from overburdened state employees. They are much less likely to have stable mealtimes or bedtimes, or to learn such basic success skills as completing their homework. Then, when they turn 18, about 25,000 kids per year “age out” of foster care, and are left on their own with little or no support. As a result, foster kids in America are four times more likely to end up homeless, addicted or in jail.
The Treehouse Community is an effort to change that. Judy Cockerton, a 61-year-old former toy-store owner, founded the Treehouse Foundation in 2002, after becoming a foster parent herself. Her organization strives to create a stable, supportive and curative world for kids who were in foster care by combining them with another oft-neglected segment of our society: seniors.
The Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow sits on the rural outskirts of a former mill-town in the western part of Massachusetts. On 46 acres, newly built cottages and houses surround a playground, fields and gardens, with views of Mount Tom to the east and a middle school to the north. About 50 seniors occupy apartments in the cottages, and about 50 kids and their foster parents occupy 12 houses. These seniors, just like grandparents used to do, help the parents and kids any way they can, from teaching them knitting to shepherding a special-needs child through summer camp. Now in its seventh year, this community has been the first stable environment many of these kids have ever had and assures them that even when they reach age 18, they will still have a family and a community they belong to, complete with surrogate grandparents.
Holly Handfield is one such senior. The single mother of four adult children with short, white hair, small-framed glasses and a silver disc on a chain around her neck that reads “Grace,” she lost her job as a kitchen designer when the hardware store she worked at closed about a decade ago. While trying to figure out what to do next, she heard about the Treehouse Community and knew as soon as she visited that it was the place for her. “I said, ‘Yup, this is what I need to do.’”
This was partly because the alternatives for a person facing retirement weren’t to her liking. She had noticed how most seniors end up isolated in small apartments “sitting inside” and “doing nothing,” she says. The Treehouse Community, on the other hand, “forces you to come out and be part of things.” Seniors are welcome to contribute in any way they can, from weeding the community garden to helping with homework.
Handfield also liked that the Treehouse Community was so safe. This can be a big issue for older folks, and it can make them fear adolescents. Here, she says, “The kids are very respectful. When they need help, they know they can come knock on my door and I’ll be there for them. They all know me. They know all the seniors here.” Says one gregarious high-school boy, “They teach us about the past, and we teach them about the future.”
Handfield loves to cook, and this has become her major role in the Treehouse Community. “When you put food out for kids,” she says, “they come.” She runs a Saturday morning breakfast in the community building, where her sticky buns have become legendary. To accommodate various food allergies, she’s learned how to make brownies with black beans instead of flour, and a chocolate pudding that kids don’t realize contains avocado.
She’s also part of the team that helps support the adoptive parents of 14-year-old Beth. “She has some issues because of the way she was brought up,” Handfield says, “and some challenges. She fills up a room. She’s bigger than life. If Beth’s [adoptive] parents need a break, she can come to my house. She likes to be hugged and made a big deal about and told she’s pretty. She hooked into me. I’m like her grandmother.” Beth calls her Grandma Holly.
This past summer, Beth asked Handfield to help her with a special project. She wanted to make a birthday present for her adoptive father—his favorite, a carrot cake. Beth struggles to stay focused, and Handfield worried that something so complicated might be a struggle. She nonetheless agreed, and “it came out really well,” Handfield says. “She was delighted, and excited to give it to him. She’s got a big heart.”
And in that cake lies the magic of the Treehouse Community. Because of their previous experiences, many of the kids like Beth arrive scared, depressed and untrusting. Over time, Handfield has watched them turn into calm, happy, motivated young adults who go off to college and fulfill their professional ambitions. How does this happen?
“A lot of it has to do with self-esteem,” Handfield says. “If you’re ignored all the time, you feel worthless. Then if you come here, you have people around you showing you that you do have worth, and your self-esteem grows.”
And how do the seniors at Treehouse show these kids that they have worth? “It’s not about what you make,” Handfield says. “It’s that you care enough to spend time with them that sends the message.”
And it works both ways. Helping Beth, Handfield says, gives her the sense that “I’ve accomplished something. I’ve made some kind of difference. It gives my life worth. I came here to help, and they helped me, too.”
This model – Cockerton calls it “Elders as Intervention” – is beginning to gain national traction. A similar community already exists in Illinois, and more are springing up in Oregon, Arizona, Washington, California and Maine.
And why not? “You should see this place in the summertime,” Handfield says. “The kids are all outside riding their bikes or playing on the playground, and nobody has to worry because everyone’s keeping an eye out. You walk down the street and people are sitting out on their porches, saying ‘hello’ and ‘good night!’ It reminds me of when I was 12. Everybody watches out for each other.”
Nathaniel Reade has been an editor and writer for scores of magazines, including GQ, Spirit and SKI, on subjects ranging from West Nile Virus to snowshoeing in Labrador. The comic young-adult novel he recently wrote with his 12-year-old son, The Pencil Bandits, has been described as “Oliver Twist meets The Marx Brothers meets The Boxcar Children.”