CEO of Treehouse stepping down after 25 years of helping foster kids

SEATTLE - It started with a belief that foster kids were more than just a statistic. For decades, Treehouse has helped foster kids thrive, when the chances were against them. The work the nonprofit has done is considered a blueprint for foster services throughout the country. And throughout that time, Janis Avery has been there.

But after 25 years, serving as Treehouse’s CEO, Avery announced that she is stepping down. And while she will leave soon, she is far from done helping others.

If you’ve ever met Janis, you may think she's quiet, or unassuming, but when it comes to leaders who help foster kids, and their caretakers thrive, many think Janis has done so much.

“I don’t think Janis knows how great Janis is,” said Amy Mullins, board chairman for Treehouse.

They know what she’s done, and how she will be missed.

“My heart is full for the kids. And for everybody who contributes to making this happen,” said Avery.

Treehouse has been under Janis' leadership since 1995. Back then, Treehouse had just ten people working. Now, it’s grown to 148 staff members and more than 3,00- volunteers.

“It is a community-wide heroic effort. And we are a unique community. There are no other Treehouses across the country,”

But something I've learned about Janis is how candid she is. And after 25 years, it's time she says for more challenges. But not before taking a quick break first.

“There is an intensity in doing this kind of work, over nearly a quarter-century that is frankly tiring. And I need a break to restore myself and reflect and see what I might do next,” said Avery.

Intense work, for sure, but rewarding she said, even more. But don't take Janis' word for it. Just ask Karla Petersen. She's fostered and adopted 8 kids with the help of Treehouse.

“The oldest is 34, the youngest adopted is 12,” said Petersen.

She credits the non-profit’s 'little wishes’ program.

“Which helps them the kids, all of my kids have had that. From music lessons to their sports to one my daughters wanted to do gymnastics since she was five,” said Petersen.

For Brianna Franco, who’s been in foster care since she was 12 years old, it’s the little things that got her through. Even being able to shop at Treehouse’s store where she got free clothes or shoes.

“I can shop once a month and get some new pants, some new shirts, a new pair of shoes if they have them here. Again, that normalcy factor,” said Franco.

It’s something that Treehouse recognizes as well.

“Treehouse provides a little opportunity for some sustenance, some support at that moment. Because the first thing is a trip to the store to get some clothes that they like. To get a stuffed animal that they can hold,” said Avery.

Brianna says Janis's leadership shows throughout.

“She cares, and she’s passionate about what she does. And whatever she puts her mind to, she’ll do it with the fullness of her heart,” said Franco.

But the crowning achievement for Janis in 25 years is the work to improve graduation rates, she said. Treehouse is hands-on when it comes to that, having educational specialists who are there for the kids, for anything.

“My specialist taught me the skills of goal setting, the importance of it. I still facilitate some of that goal setting for school,” said Franco.

Nationwide, only about 50-percent of kids in foster care graduate from high school. Under Treehouse, close to 70 percent graduate on time.

“We’ve said to youth in foster care, you matter. We care about you. We’re going to help improve your lives. We’re going to level the playing field,” said Avery.

Treehouse is in a good spot as it goes through this transition.

“We’re never done with our work. We’re always saying what more can we do,” said Mullins.

Even though Avery is looking forward to taking a break, don’t count her out yet. Until then, she is extremely proud of the work done by Treehouse.

“Hope, possibility, dignity and respect. Things that every child deserves,” said Avery.

Janis Avery says after taking a break, she wants to pursue more in social justice work. Things like racial equity, income inequality and perhaps finding work in addressing incarceration rates.

A nationwide search for a new CEO for Treehouse started earlier this month.