It's a cold, blustery November afternoon and Teshina Edwards is shopping for her little boy Isaiah. "He needs pants really bad," she says, sifting through a rack of jeans. But when

Edwards takes her giant turquoise shopping bag—loaded with pants, books, used toys, and new socks—to the checker, she won't need to open her wallet.

Edwards is at the Wearhouse, a project run by the nonprofit Treehouse, which assists foster children and other kids under the state's care in King County. Everything in the Rainier Valley store—which looks and sounds like the inside of a Ross Dress for Less, complete with chrome clothing racks and Motown shoo-wop-ing from the speakers—is free.

The state gives funds to foster families, but the money only covers about 60 percent of the real cost of raising a foster child, says Jessica Ross, a spokeswoman for Treehouse. And many foster parents, like Edwards, care for multiple foster children or are the unexpected (and financially unprepared) recipients of a relative's abused or neglected child.

Two-year-old Isaiah, for example, was born addicted to crack and spent the first month of his life in detox. He has been in Edwards's care since he was 6 weeks old. "His parents couldn't take care of him," she says of her cousins. She also cared for another cousin's 8-year-old boy for six months.

"When I had both kids, Treehouse helped me out so much. For families who don't have all that much, especially in this economy, it's a lifesaver," says Edwards, 27, an inventory regulator for kitchen supplier Sur La Table. "If you didn't have the opportunity to come here... how often would you be able to buy your kid a $7 book?"

This year, The Stranger is donating the proceeds from Strangercrombie, our annual charity auction, to Treehouse. (Last year, Strangercrombie raised over $60,000 for FareStart, which provides culinary job training and placement for homeless men and women. The auction begins December 4 at

Treehouse was founded in 1988 by a group of social workers who were frustrated by the lack of resources for foster kids in Washington State. They wanted to provide tutoring and therapeutic services to the kids and economic assistance to their foster families. Now with 60 staffers and 1,400 volunteers, Treehouse serves roughly 4,000 kids each year.

The statistics for foster kids, most of whom have suffered severe abuse or neglect, are dismal: According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, fewer than half of Washington's foster children graduate from high school, 75 percent are living in poverty, and only 27 percent passed the 10th-grade WASL in 2006. According to the local Casey Family Foundation, only 3 percent of foster children graduate from college.

While Treehouse doesn't commission reports on the impact of its programs, social workers, parents, and lawmakers agree the nonprofit has vastly improved lives in King County. "Treehouse has helped children expect that they can see a future that includes higher education instead of giving up," says state representative Ruth Kagi, chair of the Early Learning and Children's Services Committee.

December is the busiest season at Treehouse, and the staff believes that this year will be especially difficult for parents, who are bracing for a tough economy. "Kid stuff is really expensive now," says Guerline Rupern, 30, a single mother who works 45 hours a week as a home health aide to support her six children.

The free-clothing emporium is only a fraction of Treehouse's scope, which includes tutoring, therapeutic extracurricular activities, and backing legislation that supports foster families.

Treehouse has drafted and helped push several successful bills in the state legislature, most notably an education bill in 2003 that requires school districts to keep foster kids in the same school whenever possible. The law also established a panel to coordinate state agencies and nonprofits that deal with foster families.

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"Having a kid sit in front of a committee and talk about going to 15 schools had a huge impact," says Representative Kagi. She says Treehouse was vital to the bill's success. "Ten years ago, to the legislature, the primary issue was safety. Education wasn't even discussed."

"We are trying to really normalize a situation that is not normal," Ross says. "We know it can't be perfect, but we know we are making a difference." recommended