Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two Passions: My story

I never planned on working with special needs kids. I started with a volunteer opportunity that satisfied some community service requirements I had for school. I was not introduced to these kids well and actually left that opportunity thinking that I would not volunteer with this population again. However, shortly after, a friend told me that the special needs Sunday school class needed some extra hands. I had a hard time saying "no" those days, so, every six weeks, I showed up to help out. But that quickly became every 3 weeks and then, when a teaching opportunity came up, I became the leader of the class. It was later, when the same friend told me about a part time job working with kids like my Sunday school kids, that I realized what had happened; I had fallen in love.

I found myself loving the kids I worked with, the families I met through them, the community these families formed together. This work led me to pursuing pediatrics in my nursing career where I got to learn more about these kids and continue to interact with them during some of their more challenging periods of life. I was hooked.

I know this will come as a surprise to many, but I actually never planned on working in Africa either. I grew up dreaming of travel; of new places, people, and culture. As my dreams grew, I decided that I needed to settle down my focus to one area of the world; I surely couldn't go everywhere, and what I picked may surprise some. I chose Asia. I even went as far as to start learning some phrases in some of the languages spoken there. But, as I was planning on how and when to go there, I decided to make a trip to Africa. Just to get a quick taste since (I thought) I would not be going back there after I started my travels to another continent. I don't think I need to go into much explanation about what happened next, but, to put it simply, my heart as not yet been able to leave Africa behind.

By now, you'd think I would realize that my plans are often not His plans. But, as the story goes, I NEVER planned on combining these two passions. However, as many know, that's what happened last summer in Malawi. I spent two weeks working with a beautiful, loving, fun, and ambitious group of special needs children and their families in Africa. Watching the beginnings of their community form as the families spent more time together in an environment where everyone was just a little different, my heart grew inspired and hopeful for the future of these kids; for the future of Malawi. One of the barriers, however, that we saw time and time again, was the misunderstanding of these great kids. Not for lack of willingness to learn, but from a lack of availability of information. If you grew up hearing that albino children come from parents who did something wrong, what else could you think when you had an albino child yourself, but to assume you were at fault? This, more than most things, is what broke my heart.

Upon returning, a new friend from my trip, M, and I started talking about a way we could encourage the growth and acceptance of the special needs community in Malawi. As our hopes turned to plans, my long time friend, L, who is an amazing editor, was brought on board, followed by another old friend, B, who is an avid artist. The group came together and "The Tree Keeper" was born. The Tree Keeper is a story of children, some of whom have special needs, who come together for a common purpose, each using their unique abilities, and accomplish more than they ever could alone. In a story of acceptance and value, this book conveys the idea that no one was made by mistake. Following the story, this short book gives a brief overview of what each of these special needs are and what they are not. What causes special needs, and what does not. And what is helpful to these kids, and what is not.

We'll go back this summer, all four of us in different capacities, and share our book. We don't know exactly how it will be received or what will come next, but the book will be made available to kids in schools, to teachers, to the special needs kids themselves, and their families. We hope for this book to be a stepping stone in Malawi's journey to affect the culture surrounding these astounding children.

Long story short: I'm going back, but not with empty hands.

Visit my site below for more information on how to get involved, support my trip, or donate Tree Keeper books to Malawi. As I yearn to support a community in Malawi, I know that I never would have and never will again set foot in Malawi without the support of my community here. And for that, I am forever grateful, inspired, and blessed. Thank you to all who support me in any way.

The Tree Keeper goes to Malawi