Sitting on the floor in a classroom in Malawi, I took a deep breath before the puppet show started. This was it; after almost a year working on this project, the special needs children of Malawi were about to hear the story written just for them. As we started, I couldn’t see much around the edge of the sheet we knelt behind with our puppets. Two of the few people were Felix and his father. Felixis 4 and was born with albinism, which is considered a special need in Malawi. At 4 years old, his attention span is understandably short, but I could see Felix’s dad making sure Felix saw the entire story. Between nodding along in agreement and re-directing his son’s attention, Felix’s dad’s eyes were locked on the puppet show as my teammate and the book’s editor, L, read The Tree Keeper out loud. It struck me how quiet it was. With 25+ special needs kids and their caregivers, it’s
rarely quiet at our camp.
After we finished, L and I stood in front of the group to give a brief summary of what the book contained and why we wrote it. The quiet continued as the group watched us with rapt attention. I got to the sentence telling them that we had brought a book for each of the kids to take home with them and stopped, waiting for the translator to catch up. As he finished his sentence in their native language, the hushed room burst into applause. I had a moment of silent relief as I waited, smiling, for the applause to stop; any worries or doubts I had had about the reception of the book washed away with that round of applause. That was the beginning of an amazing week of learning how much He has been and is still working in the lives of these awesome kids who have so much potential.
After writing this book with M, B, and L, we had one goal; to bring the Tree Keeper to these kids. We wanted 30 books, written specifically for children in Malawi, to help teach the kids at our camp about special needs and His love for them. But He had more in mind. As our opportunities grew, so did our support from friends and family. Our reservoir of books grew to more than 140 and I don’t believe we had one more or less than was needed in Malawi.
The first batch left early this summer with M as she served as a teaching consultant for 6 weeks in Malawi. Not knowing exactly what her time there would look like, she was excited to see where the books would be used during her stay. She ended up having a great experience doing a special needs workshop with many teachers and was able to give a book to each teacher to use in their classrooms as well as for personal reference. Another unexpected stop for The Tree Keeper was in one of Malawi's special needs classes. Malawi has very few classes for special needs kids, about 3 of which are near where we were working. The books that we had left over from each of our projects went to a sweet special needs teacher who read the story with her class and had a special time with one of her students who has Downs Syndrome. The student identified with one of the characters in the book and was able to talk with her teacher specifically about her special need and read about the great plan He has for her life. This encouraged us that our “extra” books were in no way there by mistake!
The second batch traveled to Malawi in July with B and the teach team. Primary and secondary school teachers from all over the city left the seminar with a copy. New ideas of inclusion were presented and some tough questions were brought up. The team was able to start some conversations about changes in education and acceptance of children who learn differently. Despite the small number of special needs classes in Malawi, I don’t believe it was in any way a coincidence when another one of those teachers arrived at their seminar. He had already asked for more time to spend reading the book when he found out that the team had brought one for him to keep as a resource for him and his class!
The last set of books arrived in August with the special needs team. I could tell you stories of children seeing a character that looked like them for the first time, teenagers expressing the need they have seen for this information, caregivers’ stories of how their children have changed and thrived with the knowledge of their worth, questions about common myths relating to special needs in the book, and understanding on the faces of kids who are learning about their differences.
But, for time sake, it will have to suffice to say Thank you. Thank you to my friends and family for taking an interest in a population many of you have never met. Thank you for loving these kids who are so precious to me. Thank you for believing in the people of Malawi who, I believe, are on the path towards making a difference in the lives of these very special children. Thank you.