December 05, 2012

5 Social Innovators in Their 60s Win $100,000 Purpose Prizes

Civic Ventures

Judy Cockerton, founder of the Treehouse Foundation, created a housing community where families who have adopted or plan to adopt foster children live among people age 55 and older.

A lawyer, a former toy-store owner, a financial planner, an engineer, and an ex-offender have each received $100,000 to honor social programs they created as a way to solve some of the world’s most stubborn social problems.

The awards, known as Purpose Prizes, are given to people age 60 and over. Now in their seventh year, the prizes are given by (formerly Civic Ventures), a nonprofit that seeks to get older people involved in nonprofit work and other efforts to serve society.

The John Templeton Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies sponsor the awards over all, but AARP sponsors one of the five prizes, which honors people who lead programs that incorporate multiple generations.

Among this year’s winners:

Bhagwati (B.P.) Agrawal, 68, an engineer, whose group Sustainable Innovations uses technology to create durable enterprises to solve problems in the developing world, such as access to clean drinking water.

Susan Burton, 61, a recovering drug addict and former prisoner, whose A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project offers transitional housing and supportive services to female ex-offenders and their children.

Judy Cockerton, 61, a former toy-store owner and schoolteacher whose Treehouse Foundation offers a new approach for getting adults of all ages involved in offering care and support to foster children.

Thomas Cox, 68, a lawyer who represented banks, who started Maine Attorneys Saving Homes to help needy home­owners battle foreclosure.

Lorraine Decker, 64, a financial planner who started Skills for Living to help low-income teenagers and adults navigate money issues, career challenges, and college planning.

A 'World of Opportunity’

The money comes with no strings attached.

Ms. Cockerton says she plans to use her prize winnings to support Treehouse, a planned multigenerational community of more than 100 people in Easthampton, Mass., and her two related nonprofits: Sibling Connections and Birdsong Farm.

Sibling Connections gives brothers and sisters in foster care who have been separated opportunities to reunite at summer camp and other social settings. Birdsong Farm, now in the planning stages, will be an educational facility for kids in foster care in southeastern Massachusetts.

Ms. Cockerton created Treehouse in 2006 after taking in two young foster children and seeing a disconnect between the “world of opportunity” she and her family lived in and the bleaker prospects for kids in the foster-care pipeline, which she says too often produces “tomorrow’s poor and homeless people.”

“I had this desire to pour all the joy and delight and color and whimsy in my world” into the foster-care system, she says. She was also seeking a way to get more adults involved in helping foster children.

Treehouse Foundation runs a national conference on re-envisioning the foster-care system. It also operates its planned community.

At Treehouse, families who have adopted or plan to adopt foster children live alongside neighbors who are age 55 and older and act as “honorary grandparents.”

Watch a video of Ms. Cockerton explaining her work.