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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 COTN in Malawi were about to hear the story written just for them. As we started, I noticed Felix and his father. Felix is 4 and was born with albinism, which is considered a special need in Malawi. I could see Felix’s dad making sure his son saw the entire story. Nodding along in agreement, his eyes were locked on the puppet show as my teammate (and the editor of the book) Lindsay read The Tree Keeper out loud. When we finished, Lindsay and I stood in front of the group to give a summary of the book and why we wrote it. After I told the group that we had brought a book for each child to keep, the room burst into applause. I had a moment of silent relief; any worries or doubts I’d had about the reception of the book were washed away. That was the beginning of an amazing week of learning how much God has been and is still working in the lives of these amazing kids who have so much purpose.

After writing this book with Marisa, Brooke, and Lindsay, we had one goal: to bring The Tree Keeper to these kids. We wanted 30 books to help teach the kids at our camp about special needs and about God’s love for them. But God had more in mind. As our opportunities grew, so did our support. Our reservoir of books grew to more than 140 copies, and I believe that was exactly what was needed this summer.

The first batch went with Marisa as she served as a teaching consultant for six weeks in Malawi. She had a great experience doing a special needs workshop with COTN’s teachers and was able to give each a book to use in their classrooms. Another unexpected stop for The Tree Keeper was in one of Lilongwe’s (Malawi’s capital) few special needs classes. The rest of the first batch books went to a special needs teacher who read the story with her class. She had a sweet moment of understanding with one of her students who has Down syndrome and was able to talk with her specifically about her special need and God’s love and plan for her life.

The second batch traveled to Malawi in July with Brooke and the Education Team. Teachers from all over Lilongwe 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, another one of those teachers arrived at their seminar and was thrilled to find out that the team had brought a copy for him to keep as a resource for him and his class!

The last of the books arrived in August with the Special Needs Team. I could tell you stories of children identifying with characters who looked like them, teenagers expressing needs they’ve seen for this information, caregivers communicating how their children have changed and thrived knowing their worth in God, and conversations about myths relating to special needs. But, for the sake of time, suffice it to say we are extremely thankful for the impact you made! Thank you to our church family for taking an interest in a population you may have never met and loving these kids who are so precious to God and to us. Thank you for believing in the people of Malawi, who we believe are on the path toward making a difference in the lives of these very special children. Thank you! Zikomo!

Guest blogger Kari Freeman is a pediatric nurse. This was her 6th trip to Africa! She’s a Connect group leader and volunteers in Base Camp at the Herndon campus.