10.23.2023

Treehouse Founders Come Together for 35th Anniversary

From left to right: Christine Trujillo (former Community Resource Manager at the Bellevue DSHS office), Winnie Wiatrak (retired DSHS Regional Administrator), Mary Lou Dickerson (Treehouse founder and retired Washington State Representative), Dinah Martin (retired Community Resource Coordinator) and John Birnel (social worker involved in the early days and husband of Mary Lou Dickerson).
From left to right: Christine Trujillo (former Community Resource Manager at the Bellevue DSHS office), Winnie Wiatrak (retired DSHS Regional Administrator), Mary Lou Dickerson (Treehouse founder and retired Washington State Representative), Dinah Martin (retired Community Resource Coordinator) and John Birnel (social worker involved in the early days and husband of Mary Lou Dickerson).

As Treehouse turns 35 this year, we look back at the people, passion and progress of Treehouse and our community to create a world where every young person in foster care has a chance to pursue their dreams and launch successfully into adulthood.

In August, we brought together a group of individuals who were there at the beginning, including founder, Mary Lou Dickerson. Together they shared stories of Treehouse’s origins, including how the Holiday Magic program was formed and the intentionality behind Treehouse being a public/private partnership.

In the mid-1980s, social workers in King County DSHS field offices were holding book sales to raise money for birthday presents and field trips for youth in foster care — the experiences that the state “couldn’t pay for,” shared Dinah Martin, then DSHS Regional Administrator. By 1988, the donation box they had been using had outgrown its spot in a desk drawer.

In addition to the box of monetary donations, Christine Trujillo, former Community Resource Manager, had a shelf in one of the offices to store donated items. These occasionally included coloring books but were mostly stuffed animals and diapers. The social workers would take a stuffed animal when they went out to meet with a child, which made it much easier to break the ice and help them to open us.

“Due to cuts to human services programs during the Reagan administration, we had to get creative,” said Mary Lou. “I was serving on an advisory board with Winnie [Wiatrak, then a DSHS Regional Administrator], and she had told me about social workers holding a book sale to help pay for things for the youth on their caseloads. Since I had recently formed a nonprofit for a program that was a public-private partnership with the City of Seattle and figured out how to do it, I got the idea that could happen between other public agencies and organizations. I suggested to Winnie that she start a nonprofit to support the caseworkers in their efforts. Winnie said, ‘Good idea. Why don’t YOU do it?’”

Treehouse — originally named Children’s Fund — achieved its 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status in October 1988. Mary Lou wrote the organization’s articles of incorporation and recruited the first Board of Directors, ensuring the organization was a public-private partnership from the very beginning, with representation from state agencies, private companies, the judicial system and community members. She also served as the chair of the organization’s board of directors for the first two years and was the chair for the first fundraising event – an auction that raised $5,000.

Volunteers with the KIRO Newsradio team during the 2014 Holiday Magic Radiothon.
Volunteers with the KIRO Newsradio team during the 2014 Holiday Magic Radiothon.

That same year, a partnership between DSHS Children’s Administration and KIRO Newsradio was established. Dinah shared that while serving on the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect with Carrie Krueger, producer of the noon show on KIRO Television, it was mentioned that KIRO wanted to do something to support youth in foster care. Together, they developed a program that would provide one meaningful gift during the holidays to every youth in care in King County.

Dinah partnered with KIRO to create a letter for caregivers to fill in the youth’s name and what gift they wanted. The letters were then faxed to the station. The staff would hover around the fax machine every day to see the new requests. They picked a week in early December to go on the air and read some of the letters, which Dinah said resulted in an “explosion” of support.

Dawn Rains, Treehouse CEO, and Dinah Martin, her former internship supervisor.
Dawn Rains, Treehouse CEO, and Dinah Martin, her former internship supervisor.

“We expected the first year of Holiday Magic would be this little, small thing,” Dinah said. “It ended up being this big monster. It was just incredible. There was one morning KIRO called me at my desk and said, ‘Dinah, you must come over here and answer the phone, or we are not going to get the news on.’ The phone was ringing off the hook and keeping her from being able to do her regular job duties. I went in and could just feel this hub of energy and excitement in the building.”

Within the first year, 1,000 youth received a gift during the holidays. When Dawn Rains, now Treehouse’s CEO, started her college internship at DSHS under Dinah in 1991, that number had risen to 3,000 youth. The program currently serves over 4,200 annually.

Thank you, Christine, Winnie, Mary Lou, Dinah and John for being generous with your time and effort, both in Treehouse’s early years and now as we celebrate 35 years as an organization. A small seed was planted, watered and nurtured; what began as a public-private partnership has continued to grow, starting with a $5,000 budget in 1988 to now a $25 million organization in 2023.

What’s your Treehouse story? Share it with us and it may be featured on our social media channels.

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