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The Tree in the Room This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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Every Tuesday and Thursday for the past two years, I have volunteered at a transitional home for battered women and children. Second Step, a non-profit social service agency in Orange County, provides transitional housing, food and clothing, and counseling services to abused women and their children. My mother, who is a volunteer, introduced me to it and it has become a way for us to help the mirror image of ourselves – other mothers and children who are giving and loving and creative, but who haven’t been as lucky as we are.

The transitional home is located in a neighborhood filled with graffiti, teenagers in hoodies lingering around the liquor store, and houses with boarded-up windows. However, just beyond Second Step’s gates, a community of 15 houses has been created that is warm and even charming. My favorite is the children’s group counseling room. Originally a two-car garage, the staff transformed it into a cozy playroom. The walls are decorated with the children’s artwork, and toys fill the shelves and floor. The best part is the main wall of the playroom, covered with a mural of a gigantic oak tree painted by the children, staff and volunteers. When I first saw it, I was taken aback. Painted in such bright colors and bold strokes, it almost seems like the tree could break right through the ceiling and grow into the sky.

My role as a volunteer is to help out with the kids, and whether I’m drawing alongside them, playing soccer in the courtyard, or just watching “The Little Mermaid,” I always enjoy their company. The children are between eight months and 15 years old, and each has a different story and most importantly, a unique personality.

A family typically lives at Second Step for one year, and I have seen two sets of children complete their stay. Over the course of that year, you begin to understand and grow close to the kids. Interestingly enough, they really start to understand and bond with you, too. Watching the children just be kids and momentarily forget their problems – even when you can’t – is a pretty powerful thing.

Whenever I walk into the playroom, I’m greeted with friendly hellos and hugs. And the impact that one can make – that I can make – on a child’s life just by being there and listening to their stories never gets old.

One of my most moving experiences happened when I was working with Sara, a fifteen-year-old who became pregnant shortly after arriving at Second Step with her mother and two little brothers, all victims of domestic violence. Because of her beliefs, she decided to see the pregnancy through. But it wasn’t easy. During our conversations, she talked about her struggles: from the disrespectful comments and looks she had to put up with, and her own doubts about whether she was mature enough to raise a baby “right.” As the pregnancy progressed, however, she gained confidence and determination, and she promised to make a life for her child that was better than the one she had. She talked about going to school and ensuring that her child gets a good education, and teaching her child to only gravitate toward people who would be good to him or her – something she learned at Second Step.

Talking to her taught me how important it is to be courageous and do the best you can, even in the most difficult of situations. It also showed me how important it is not to judge people whose circumstances, ethical views, and religious or cultural beliefs may not be similar to yours. At the end of the day we are all people – mothers, fathers, children, sisters, and brothers – and that should remind us daily about empathy and tolerance.

Even though Sara has moved on with her family, when I set up the room for group playtime, I always think about her as I look at the gigantic oak tree. For me, that tree represents something pretty significant: that people can come together to create something bigger and more beautiful than themselves, helping each other branch out in new and interesting ways. Like the tree, the people at Second Step learn to thrive from the resources around them and eventually flourish. And like the tree, they too look like they are about to break through the ceiling and into the sky, into a world filled with hope and possibility.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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