This is one in a series of articles on The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy.
Normalcy in a life where normal is elusive can be so very warm and special that the memories linger no matter how fleeting the moments may be.
Those moments - frozen in the fractured lives of many foster children - become their childhood memories.
Such are the memories of the thousands of abused and neglected children accepted into state protective custody - approximately 8,000 in King County alone in 1995. Treehouse, an agency that receives money from the Seattle Times Fund for the Needy tries to bring normalcy into the lives of these children.
Started by the staff of the King County Division of Children and Families, Treehouse is now a private, nonprofit agency that offers services to help foster children feel normal: in-school tutoring, tuition and equipment for music, athletic or educational field trips and the Little Wishes Wearhouse, a program that solicits and provides foster children with some of the clothing, toys and other items their peers have.
"Our goal is to restore a sense of a normal childhood for kids whose lives have been disrupted by abuse and neglect," said Janis Avery, Treehouse managing director. "This is especially difficult for foster kids because their lives are very uncertain in terms of where they are going to live, with whom and for how long."
Such was William Willoughby's childhood. Home for William was a
series of temporary addresses - 26 fosters home in all during the 10 years he revolved between foster care, life with his birth mother and home with his grandmother.
In foster-child parlance, the people they stay with are called "the adults." William, 14, never really got to know any of the adults or places very well. His memories flit, unable to root in any specific place. His strongest memory is rooted, but he doesn't know where. It's of a pear tree, in the back of a big yard of a big house with lots of bicycles. He remembers going to church with the adults, coming home to eat rice with sugar, picking pears.
It is his favorite foster-home memory from a life where adapting was the most important skill: "I pretty much adapted to moving place to place," William said, his voice muffling resignation.
"Until four years ago Thanksgiving," he added, quick to spin the story in a brighter hue. "That's when we came here."
"Here," is the Willoughbys' south Seattle house, home to William, three of his younger siblings, Isaiah, 12, Jonathan, 10 and Sarah, 8 and their adoptive mother, Penny Willoughby. The three boys share a bedroom, and they all share the house with Joey and Stacy, both children with developmental disabilities; a 14-month-old foster child; and Willoughby's cousin, Kathy Alstatt. Willoughby and Alstatt are home-care nurses and co-guardians of Joey and Stacey.
Penny, 37, didn't envision her destiny as a single mother of four lively children. But when Sarah was 2 she attended the same day care as Penny's nephew and niece, who befriended her. Penny learned Sarah was in need of a foster placement, and agreed to take her on the condition that the placement would be pre-adoptive, not simply a foster home. Sarah had already lived in five foster homes by the time she was 3.
Sarah's aunt told Penny that Sarah had three older brothers, but the brothers and Sarah didn't know each other. Would Penny be interested in adopting them? At the time Penny decided one was enough.
Before long, Sarah met her older brothers at extended family gatherings. Within six months Willoughby had adopted Jonathan, then 4. Two years later William and Isaiah joined the family.
"I wasn't looking to be a single mom," Willoughby said, smiling at the memory. "I just fell in love with Sarah and it started there. Finally I said, `Why don't they just come and we'll see.' "
"We just came out of nowhere," Isaiah piped in, his witty, prankster personality thawing his initial silence.
How does it feel to live with her brothers? "Horrible," Sarah exclaimed with a mischievous grin. Translation: normal. It feels like home. The four of them fuss and squabble like any family. But the boys lay in their bunks at night laughing and talking about girls, new games, what they'll do at school the next day, their grades - if they got good ones. Sarah has a small part in the Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," thanks to her insistence on, and Penny's persistence about, lessons. These are things that families - things that mothers - do.
Willoughby has had to adapt to being a mother as well. She is president of a support group for foster parents and frequently refers them to Treehouse for items and services beyond their ability or budget. Willoughby sought out math tutoring for Isaiah and a crib for her latest foster child through Treehouse. William volunteers in the Wearhouse program, sorting and tagging clothes .
Ask the two older brothers what home feels like and their articulate responses rise well above their age.
"People that care for you, take you out to such events as I was talking about (their family trip to Disneyland)," William said.
"Toys, nice clothes, the dogs (two big German Shepherds)," Isaiah added to the list. "Having company over, friends. Every time you go to a new foster home you go to a different school. Because we go to the same school now we have friends."
"I remember one time she (his birth mother) had forgotten my birthday," William said. His aunt remembered. She bought him high-top shoes. He still remembers the colors - black, white and red - and the smell. "Hopefully, I'll smell that smell this Christmas," William added, smiling sheepishly. Home also is feeling safe enough to look ahead.
And between the foster homes? What was home like then? Isaiah said an inaudible word and fell silent. William, seated on the bunk below, turned his head to listen to his brother, then filled in. It was a caretaker role he had assumed out of necessity.
"Our mom did drugs, right?" William said, a slight anxiety crossing his face, hoping that phrase would suffice and not require a broader explanation. "I can remember one time he (William's head nodding up toward Isaiah) had to flush them down the toilet. She got mad. We sure met the belt that day."
William also remembers changing his younger brother's diapers and watching "Wheel of Fortune" on television. "Mom would be out somewhere, we wouldn't know where."
Willoughby said it took awhile for them to settle in and feel a sense of rootedness. Willoughby, herself from a family of five, has taken "numerous" workshops in behavior management. She periodically discusses relationships with the children individually and as a family. They attend Seattle Public Schools now, but she enrolled them in the Mount Zion Academy early on to root them in their African-American heritage. They also attend extended family gatherings with their birth relatives.
"That's something I always pay attention to; and it's not just one race, it's all races that they get exposed to," Willoughby said. "It's not a black-and-white world."
Willoughby worked to build a routine into young lives that had been immersed in transience. They plan and take a two-week vacation together every year; she doesn't make promises she cannot deliver.
"I don't think you instantly become a family," Willoughby said. "You don't just add water and stir. I did some of these things, such as the trips together, on purpose. These are the traits on which you build the base of a family."
Your contributions to Fund for the Needy will help deserving children and families and give special support to agencies working to stop violence. All contributions go directly to these local charities: Salvation Army, Senior Services, Childhaven, Treehouse, First Place, Deaconess Children's Services, Family Services, Atlantic Street Center, and Youth Eastside Services. No funds are used for administrative costs, and no money or goods will be given by The Seattle Times to individuals featured in the stories. Contributions are tax-deductible. The fund is registered with the secretary of state's charities division in Olympia.
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A preview and discussion of the documentary, "Take This Heart," which chronicles life inside a foster family, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 5 at the Seattle Art Museum. The $25 admission will benefit Treehouse and KCTS-TV. KCTS-TV plans to air the documentary at 9 p.m. Jan. 9. Call 206 767-7000 for tickets.