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ParentMap 2020 Superhero Janis Avery: The Builder

A Q&A with the former CEO of Treehouse, a nonprofit supporting Washington youth in foster care

Malia Jacobson

Published on: March 23, 2020

janis avery
Janis Avery | Credit: Will Austin

As longtime CEO of Treehouse, a nonprofit supporting Washington youth in foster care, Janis Avery achieved what most leaders only dream of: phenomenal growth, dedicated volunteer support and lasting legislative change. When she took the role in 1995, Treehouse had 10 employees and an annual operating budget of $500,000. Today, the organization employs more than 140 staff members and 3,000 volunteers, and has an annual operating budget of $17 million.

This growth has allowed Treehouse to support more of Washington’s youth in foster care, says Avery. “In the foster care world, there’s a tremendous amount of movement, and we saw that a third of the students we worked with left King County each year. In order to deliver on our promise to them, we had to expand across the state.”

Treehouse now supports 8,000 youths statewide — that’s about 80 percent of the state’s youth in foster care — from birth through young adulthood, helping them reach educational goals, earn career credentials, secure living-wage jobs and attain housing stability at the same rate as their peers.

Helping fostered youth meet big goals meant setting big goals for Treehouse, says Avery. “In 2012, we launched Graduation Success, a program with a five-year goal that youth in foster care would graduate at the same rate as their peers. At the time, graduation rates for youth in foster care throughout the county were below 40 percent.”

In 2017, Treehouse announced that Graduation Success surpassed its goal by 7 percent. “We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations,” says Avery.

But Avery didn’t stop there. In addition to expanding Graduation Success, first into Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish counties, and later into Benton, Franklin, Skagit, Thurston and Whatcom counties, Avery continued to advocate for data exchanges between state agencies that would help youth in foster care receive the support and services they needed.

Over one-third of youth in foster care experience five or more school moves, losing months of academic progress with each move. One reason this instability hurts academic progress: Students’ data doesn’t move with them, making it difficult to coordinate services for students within their new schools and districts.

“Personally identifying information is held in siloed databases, and before we began our advocacy, state education agencies and child welfare agencies didn’t speak to one another,” explains Avery. Working with the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Children, Youth and Families to improve data sharing between school systems and state agencies is one of her proudest achievements, she says. “It’s now much less likely that any student’s needs will be overlooked.”

Avery stepped down as CEO on March 27 of this year, but she is confident that Treehouse will continue its progress. “Optimistic and hopeful are the two words I would use to describe myself,” she says. 

“Goodbyes are hard, and it is especially difficult to say farewell to the remarkable leadership of Janis Avery,” Treehouse board chair Amy Mullins writes. “She has built a talented team and a culture of innovation that will continue to lead us to incredible outcomes for our youth.”

What do you wish people understood about your work?

The work with youth in foster care is largely reactive. Youth are introduced into the system after experiencing a series of very difficult things. If we think about systems creating outcomes, we need to look at our system and think about how we can change it to create the outcomes we want.  

What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?

To think intentionally every day, “How do I want to improve the world?” and to allow that inspiration to move them to action.

What daily habit or small routine is most important to you?

Every morning, I write down three blessings and I post them on Twitter. Thinking about what I’m grateful for and declaring it in the world has made me a much happier person.

What has been the most profound change in your work in the past 10 years?

In the world of foster care, often we’re satisfied with very incremental improvements. At Treehouse, we decided that we wanted to change outcomes for youth in foster care permanently and fundamentally, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve done with youth to help them achieve their goals.

What is your best advice for today’s parents who want to raise and support their kids to achieve big ambitions?

Helping children develop strong emotional intelligence and the capacity to recognize privilege in their own lives; these topics are covered well in the book “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” by John Gottman, Ph.D.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

A potion that I could sprinkle around that would lead to kindness between people. It needs to be far-reaching enough to include world leaders.

Favorite read of the past year?

What book do you think every child should read?

This is not a book, but I recommend The 1619 Project by The New York Times Magazine.

Any ideas for great ways to get kids involved in volunteering?

Get the heck out of their way, because they do such a great job without input from adults.  

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