Updated Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Seated in their living room, Cheryl and John Mason are surrounded by children and grandchildren — and scores of family photographs.
Over the past 25 years, the Burien-area couple has fostered hundreds of children from Childhaven and have adopted seven. Their children have gone on to become educators and nurses, security guards and servicemen.
The Masons' children also have a deep connection to Childhaven. Nearly all have worked as teachers or volunteers at the nonprofit or have adopted children of their own from the agency.
"You can see the difference in the kids from the day they start at Childhaven," said John Mason, 57, a machinist at Boeing.
"The work they do is incredible," says Cheryl, 55, his wife of 35 years.
Childhaven, which serves children whose parents seek help or have come to the attention of the state's Child Protective Services, is one of 13 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
Childhaven began over 100 years ago as one of the first child-care centers in the nation. Over time, it has evolved to become a therapeutic nursery serving children who have experienced abuse and neglect.
The agency's goal is to end the cycle of abuse by educating parents and giving individual children the love and care and guidance they need to build a foundation for a physically and emotionally healthy life.
Even when the parents can't be reached, the efforts spent on the child are never wasted, said Todd George, program director of the agency's Broadway Branch in Seattle.
"We have kids that come in here with (developmental) delays and after a few months, they have caught up with their peers."
"Where it all begins"
In the infants room at the Broadway Branch, every baby and child is being held, rocked, gazed upon, cooed at and sung to by a volunteer or teacher.
"This is the most important room here. This is where it all begins," said George during a recent tour.
Recent studies on abused and neglected children have shown that irreversible damage can occur in the brains of children who are deprived of love and care. Where a healthy brain develops neurological connections, the brain of severely neglected and abused children is atrophied, he said.
But that can be prevented, if addressed in time, by simple, almost common-sense, solutions, George said.
Many of the babies at Childhaven were born to drug-addicted mothers and were addicted themselves, he said. It's not uncommon for them to have gone through withdrawal in their first few weeks of life and to cry when held. Others have been strapped into car seats and bouncy chairs for 18 hours a day and come to Childhaven with oddly shaped or flat heads.
Their primary needs are to be held, looked at and listened to, he said.
"We had one baby who seemed like such an easy child," said George. "He never cried."
George said he was observing the child one day when he noticed the child dropped something. Other children would cry when that happened, but not this baby.
"It was because his cries had been ignored so long that he had given up," said George.
The child's caregivers were advised to watch for his clues, and after a short time, he began to let his needs be known.
In the toddler room at lunchtime, a group of children are washing their hands and faces and sitting down to eat beef stroganoff, peas and carrots and bread.
On this day, they eat quietly with their teachers — many of whom have a master's degree in psychology or education, but work for $11 an hour because they believe the work is so important — then clear their dishes quietly.
But things aren't always so calm, George said.
Children who have been abused and neglected can act out, he said. But the staff is trained, qualified and prepared to handle everything, no matter how extreme.
"No child gets kicked out of here," he said. "It's our job as adults to teach them how to handle what we call their 'big feelings,' " George said.
The Masons had two children of their own when they began working with Childhaven to provide respite foster care for families that needed a break.
Because they were willing to open their home to any child at any time, they quickly became a staple for the agency.
They adopted their first foster child, who is now 25 and working in special education, when he was 3 years old.
Danny Mason had been placed with them as a foster child when he was 16 months old and deemed difficult to place because he was undergoing cancer treatments, the Masons said. Danny is now cancer-free.
Over the years, the Masons adopted Danny's five biological brothers and sisters: Annie, 24, Amy, 23, Joey, 22, Alysha, 20 and Emily, 19.
Their ninth child, Adam, now 19 and about to enter the Army, was adopted when he was 3 after his birth mother gave him up to the Masons while he was in foster care at their home.
Not all of the Mason children remember their time at Childhaven, but they do know that they owe a debt to the agency.
Danny delivers presents and toys to the agency each year. Several in the family have worked there as teachers and volunteers.
Jennifer, the Masons' oldest daughter, has adopted a Childhaven youngster of her own. Her 10-year-old son, Esaq, was given up by his birthparents and was placed in foster care with the Masons. When the couple decided they were too old to raise any more children, the 34-year-old Des Moines woman, who works for Easter Seals, stepped up.
"I fell in love with him and knew I could make a difference," she said. "That's what we were brought up to believe and I know it's true."
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Your dollars at work$20: Purchases 80 diapers.
$50: Provides a preschooler with a nutritious breakfast, lunch and snack five days a week for one month.
$100: Supplies formula to feed one baby for almost one month.
$500: Covers almost a month of operating expenses for one van to transport children to and from their Childhaven branch, ensuring their consistent participation in the program.
About the seriesEach year, The Seattle Times' Fund For The Needy raises money for a select group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times will write about the difference these organizations make in the lives of thousands and the impact those who give to the fund can make.
Childhaven helps abused and neglected children by offering drug-affected babies and toddlers therapeutic, research-based educational day care. It provides children and their families with the support and resources they need to develop into contributing members of the community.
For more information, go to www.childhaven.org