Jess Lewis Joins Treehouse as New Chief Program Officer

By Maya Hemachandra, Chief Development Officer

Jess Lewis headshot

Jess Lewis (they/them pronouns) recently joined Treehouse as the new Chief Program Officer to lead its programs statewide. Already, they are well-known among staff for their remarkable farm in Onalaska, WA with its extensive residents: one Dalmation/pit bull mix dog, two miniature horses, three ginger cats, four Nigerian dwarf goats, five call ducks, six Kunekune pigs, 15 chickens and too many koi fish to count.

two kunekune piglets

As impressive as their farm is Jess’ experience and leadership in the child welfare and public education sector. In their most recent position with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), Jess served as the Director of Adolescent Programs. Prior to their work at DCYF, Jess spent almost a decade at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) working on initiatives to improve several statewide programs, including Homeless Education, Foster Care Education, Equity and Civil Rights, and K-12 Discipline.

Jess recently shared with us their thoughts on joining Treehouse.

What makes you most excited about your new role at Treehouse? Is there anything that makes you feel nervous?

I have always held Treehouse up as the gold standard for how services can be delivered and how systems change can happen. Treehouse staff at every level of the organization show up, hold youth at the center of what they do and dare to dream of a better way of supporting young people as they make their way. At Treehouse, it is possible to accomplish what I have always strived for. We can remove barriers and create systems change that helps youth reach their full potential — not despite us but because what we do matters.

Change is hard for everyone. It is really hard transitioning out of state service into a different space — even if that space is better for my heart and soul. I have a lot to learn, and I am nervous every day that I will fall short of the expectations that others have of me and those I have for myself. We have a pretty awesome responsibility to show up at our best every day. Having fewer barriers is a beautiful thing. And it removes all excuses.

Where do you expect the approach to be different at Treehouse from what it was at the state?

It is really freeing to not have to fight to keep youth at the center. Treehouse has an entire culture built around that very idea. I am realizing just how much of my energy as a leader has been directed at holding that space for young people in our systems. The question now is: where do I redirect that energy where it is most valuable for Treehouse, the people who work here, and the young people we serve?

What is the first challenge you hope to tackle in your new role?

The first thing we need to do is staff up to capacity. As we plan for expansion across programs, we need to fully staff our programs so that we can perform well where we are. I am concerned about the impact on staff who are missing critical colleagues with whom to partner, struggle with high caseloads and work tirelessly to support the Treehouse vision of service delivery and outcomes. I am also concerned about those young people who are being referred to our programs and are on waitlists. They need a little Treehouse magic, and we should pull out all the stops to show up for them.

You have an extensive background in education and systems change. What drew you to this work?

My own experience as a struggling human. I did not go to school for reading, writing and arithmetic. I went to school because I was safe, warm, fed, nurtured and because it was the one place I thrived. I had caring adults who treated me like a person, and I know I was lucky. I was drawn to education and systems change because it became very apparent that there were A LOT of young people who did not have the same access, support and opportunity I had. People of color, LGBTQ+ youth, families living in poverty, young people with disabilities and most who exist outside of white, middle-class families are systematically excluded from the one resource that is supposed to be the great equalizer. I believe we have a moral and ethical obligation to use our privilege to challenge this inequity and ensure there is a comfortable seat in every classroom for every student.

Do you have a favorite playlist for when you are working on a big project? What does it include?

First of all, I am not cool. Much to my son’s horror, I am a little stuck in the ’90s. Not completely, but I have strong tendencies. I am currently listening to a playlist with EARLY Ani Difranco, Tracy Chapman, Linda Perry, Pink, Lady Gaga, Savage Garden (remember them?), Macklemore and Imagine Dragons (not ’90s but AH-MAZ-ING work tunes!).

Is there anything else you want people to know?

I could not be more honored to be part of this amazing organization and leadership team. The staff at Treehouse have been most welcoming and include some of the smartest, most talented and mission-driven leaders I have ever come across. I am looking forward to supporting Treehouse and the people here as we move into this next phase of excellence!

Learn more about Treehouse’s programs for youth experiencing foster care.

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About the Author

As Chief Development Officer, Maya leads Treehouse’s work to engage donors, volunteers, and funders as partners in creating positive change for youth experiencing foster care.

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