My Life Changed Forever December 01, 2017

In September 2009, when I volunteered to work with a second-grade boy in the brand new Treehouse after-school tutoring program, I thought that I was signing up to spend two hours each week helping a child learn to read. I walked through that classroom door for the first time having no idea that my life was about to be changed forever.

I connected right away with my little boy, and with the other Morehead Elementary School children who came twice a week to work on reading activities, have dinner and play games. Very quickly, Treehouse became a highlight of my week. I loved that it was, and still is, a lively multicultural group. All of the children are from refugee and immigrant families, from far-flung countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Mali, El Salvador and Honduras. Since English is not the first language spoken at home, becoming fluent readers is a challenge for these children. Though they come from a variety of religious backgrounds, and Bible lessons are not taught at Treehouse, the children ask many spiritual questions and there are lots of opportunities to freely share our faith in Jesus Christ. It's a fast-paced evening, and that first year of Treehouse flew by.

During the second year, I began helping with some of the organizational planning for Treehouse. As that year went on, I realized that the real mission of Treehouse is to use reading activities, games and crafts as a means to invest deeply in the life of a child. Many of the students come from large families and have two working parents, so the time that they spend one-on-one with their tutors is special to them. It also became clear that the tutors were falling in love with the children. The children can stay in Treehouse throughout their elementary school years, and almost all of them return every September. Year after year, as they returned to Treehouse, their tutors returned too, looking forward to that special time together.

By the third year, what started as 2 hours a week working on reading in a classroom had evolved into something much more, as some tutors had gotten to know their child so well that they asked to spend time with him or her outside of Treehouse hours. This has never been a requirement of Treehouse, but has been an outgrowth of the relationships that have formed. Home visits were arranged, sometimes using interpreters to get permission from the moms and dads. It started slowly and tentatively, this building of a bridge across cultures, but the parents could see how much their children loved Treehouse, so they were willing to take a step of faith and trust us to take them on outings. Soon Treehouse kids, and sometimes their siblings, were going with their tutors to the movies, the park, and baseball games.

As a team leader for Treehouse, I've had some special opportunities to be part of the children's lives, and these have been a great blessing to me. I regularly get to deliver free birthday cakes to the children's homes. Each Treehouse student gets a birthday cake every year, special creations made with love by Birthday Cakes 4 Free Triad NC.

I've spent an afternoon sitting in a hospital waiting room with 2 excited little girls and then had the joy of seeing them meet their baby brother for the first time when he was only 1 hour old.

One December, an artificial Christmas tree was donated to be given to one of the families. We chose a mom and 4 children who had never had a tree before. I made a trip to the dollar store to get ornaments and garland. When my husband and I walked through the apartment door with our boxes and bags, it was hard to tell who was more excited, the kids or their mom. They were so thrilled as they helped us pull that tree out of the box and set it up. I won't ever forget the expressions on their faces, and I was touched when the mom gave thanks to God for the tree. Since that year, it's become an annual tradition for us to decorate their Christmas tree together.

To this day, in the ninth year of the Treehouse program, our relationships with the kids and their families continue. At every home, we are greeted with big smiles as the door is flung wide. We are invited in to share a cool drink, cookies, candy and conversation. A lot of times that conversation may involve more smiling and pantomime than actual words, but I found out that you don't need words to convey love. Love is a universal language. 

In the words of Wess Stafford, President Emeritus of Compassion International, “If God stands a child before you, for even just a minute, it is a divine appointment.” Nine years ago, God had a divine appointment for me and I will be forever grateful.

-By Lorrie Nyland