Character: Janis Avery, fostering hope for kids

Janis Avery has one mission in life: shoring up support for foster children so they can make the grade in school.

Janis Avery’s mother was a model of service.

When Avery graduated from a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, she began working with people in Syracuse who were chronically mentally ill. “I was looking for solutions to suffering really early on,” she says.

Avery has been working on behalf

… of King County’s children since she left the UW with her master’s degree in social work in 1984. She’s the second CEO of Treehouse, a non-profit organization started in 1988 to ensure many of the county’s foster children have a childhood and an education.

She headed west

… to go to graduate school at the UW. When she came to Seattle to check out the university after being accepted, she was dazzled by the bright, sunny weather and decided Seattle was the place for her.

‘It was immediately wonderful,’ she says,

… in part because of two UW professors in the School of Social Work, Moya Duplica and Florence Steir, who mentored her and helped her plot out a career path. “It felt like a small community in a big public school.”

During Avery’s time

… at Treehouse, the organization has vastly expanded the scope of its services. In addition to The Wearhouse, a free store where foster kids can shop for books and clothes, and Little Wishes, which pays for school extras and experiences like soccer camp or musical instruments, Treehouse is improving high school graduation rates of foster children.

Treehouse teachers,

… social workers, mental health workers and other professionals build relationships with students, particularly those in middle school, to help them succeed. “A remarkable number of youth respond when there is a relationship with a caring adult. Kids who look unpromising become promising when we can uncover a glimmer of hope,” says Avery.

The program works.

Some 65 percent of  foster children who’ve received services from Treehouse graduated on time last year and 93 percent had a plan to go on with their education.

Avery and her partner,

… who is a school specialist, wanted to raise children of their own. “We thought we should adopt kids who were difficult to place,” she says. They adopted two children, one age four and the other six. Their oldest is now studying auto mechanics at Shoreline Community College, while the other is a security guard.

‘My job is pretty fun.’

“There’s nothing like changing lives and working with collaborators and philanthropists who care,” she says. But the work isn’t easy. Children who have been placed in foster care have many more learning disabilities and behavior disorders, and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder twice as often as military personnel, says Avery.

Avery reads a lot of novels

… and finds time to nurture herself through the Center for Spiritual Living. Right now, she’s reading a book about Pope Francis’s leadership and a novel by Sue Monk Kidd. Like many bookworms she’s always behind in her reading, likely because she’s so busy making a difference in the lives of children.

Treehouse serves 6,000 kids

… in foster care annually. It launched a college mentoring program in 2000 to serve foster youth at local universities.