Categorized | Features

Bay State woman enriching lives of foster kids

By Brian Goslow
Judy Cockerton was happily running her two “No Kidding!” toy stores in Brookline and Mattapoisett in 1998 when her husband showed her an unsettling newspaper report.

“It was the story of a five-month-old baby boy from Worcester who had been kidnapped from his crib in his foster home in the middle of the day,” she said. “His foster mother had left him alone in the house and gone down to pick up her (own) children at a junior high school in the neighborhood. When she came back, he was gone.”

The missing boy, Marlon Devine Santos, was never found and his case remains unresolved, according to the Worcester Police Department website.

When Cockerton finished reading the article, disturbed at what might have happened to the boy, she called her children and husband in for a family meeting. “We just talked about the fact that we are all responsible for children when they’re removed from their homes and placed in foster care,” she said.

“We felt it would be much better if many, many more people in their communities were stepping up to the plate and becoming resources to kids and since we had the resources, why didn’t we step up to the plate and help them do that.”

Soon after reading about the kidnapping, Cockerton called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to find out how her family could assist with children in state foster care. That phone call was the first step on Cockerton’s path to the $100,000 Purpose Prize she received last month in San Francisco for her work to enrich the lives of foster children.

This is the seventh year Purpose Prizes have been awarded. Created by in 2005 (when the company was known as Civic Ventures) to put the spotlight on the value of baby boomers’ life experiences and prove they have as much passion to create new programs to better society as younger citizens, it presents five $100,000 awards annually to people over age 60 who are serving in encore careers dedicated to developing new ways to solve social problems. The John Templeton Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies fund the prize.

Cockerton, now 61, and her husband, Arthur, now 62, of Sharon, entered the world of child welfare knowing about as much as any typical American does: not much. “I entered (the world of foster parenting) with a five-month-old on one hip and a 17-month-old on another hip,” she said. “I just opened that door (to foster care) with two beautiful babies in my arms that I cared deeply for and saw the reality of the public foster care system. And what I saw missing, more than anything, were ordinary citizens like myself.”

Her own children were 12 and 18 at the time.

“They were delighted to be a part of it and delighted to welcome children into our home and delighted to go on to become adoptive siblings,” Cockerton said.

Bringing two foster children into her family’s life was only the beginning of Cockerton’s contribution. She sold her two stores and became a full-time advocate for foster children.

“I wanted to create this new compelling menu of engagement options so Americans of all ages and backgrounds could become resources to children in foster care,” she said.

For the past 10 years, she has overseen the Easthampton, Mass.-based Treehouse Foundation; the foundation’s mission is to help move children out of the public foster care system into lifetime families and communities that invest in their lives every day of the week.

Among the programs the foundation supports are:

•The Suitcase Project, in which donated empty duffle bags and suitcases are given to social workers at the Department of Children and Families to distribute to foster kids in their system so they have a place to keep their clothing and possessions;

•The creation of Birdsong Farm, a new farm-based education center in southeastern Massachusetts, which will serve foster children from newborns to age 18; and

•The Re-envisioning Foster Care in America Initiative, launched in 2010, in which Treehouse partners and collaborates with stakeholders throughout the entire western region to harness creative ideas and leverage people, dollars and ideas to better serve children and youth places in the public foster care system.

It is the last initiative that led to Cockerton being awarded a Purpose Prize. Cockerton’s honor was sponsored by AARP to honor Intergenerational Innovation.

“This is the second year AARP has sponsored a special Purpose Prize to recognize people who bring generations together to benefit society,” said Barb Quaintance, managing director of AARP Experience Corps. “Judy is an excellent example of public service because of her steadfast commitment and her ability to tackle a social issue head on with passion, purpose and determination. Judy has used a lifetime’s worth of experience to make a difference in the lives of others — young and old.”

AARP CEO Barry Rand participated on the Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation judging panel that selected Cockerton. “We were extremely moved by Judy’s steadfast commitment to providing unique learning opportunities for children in foster care by connecting them with older mentors in their communities,” Quaintance said. “She embodies the very spirit of service that is part of AARP’s mission to lead positive, multigenerational social change.”

Quaintance said it’s extremely important to have people like Cockerton lead by example.

“Too often, we think, ‘Oh, the problem is too big. I’m just one person,’ but a story like Judy’s shines a light on the power of just one person — and the ripple effect is huge,” she said. “Judy and her fellow Purpose Prize winners inspire us all and help us see that making the world a better place is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.”

Cockerton didn’t wait long to put her $100,000 prize to good use.

“I have already invested it in the work that I’m currently doing,” said Cockerton, who said going from the world of business to the world of non-profits was an eye-opening experience. Instead of selling a product, she was selling an idea; she estimates she spends 90 percent of her time fundraising.

“In order to accomplish what the children need me to accomplish — and need all of us to accomplish for them — means that I have to stay really focused, so getting a $100,000 Purpose Prize award is such a gift,” she said.

While she has more than a full plate, Cockerton remains enthusiastic about all of the Treehouse-related programs. “I love it,” she said. “It’s my passion. I feel great and have deep joy in doing this work. I love collaborating with stellar people to create solutions and receiving the Purpose Prize has just given me the opportunity to do more of that. For the past 10 years, I’ve collaborated and partnered and invested in innovation and there’s really nothing better for me.”

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