Spreading Welcome from West Michigan to South Africa


Rewind one year: It’s October 2017, and I’m beginning my Communications Internship at Treetops Collective. It has been four months since I graduated college, four months of being a “real adult,” free of due dates and sleepy-eyed studying.
In one hand I'm holding a degree, and with the other, I’m grasping at air, reaching for some sense of direction and purpose.

Jump back to the present: It’s October 2018, and I’m living in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, working as a Refugee Project Assistant.

I’m confident in my direction and purpose. I am happy. I am content. Being here is good, and being here is right.

I fell into my internship at Treetops without much expectation. I knew I had a passion for refugees. For women. For storytelling. In the last year, these passions have only grown, and they breathe a stronger fire than they did when I first started as an Intern at Treetops. While at Treetops, I learned so much. I learned the kind of skills that look nice on resumés and job applications. But more importantly, I learned the power of storytelling. I learned about the power of change, and how it can come from a small collective of like-hearted people. And I learned what it means to spread welcome.

I also learned how integral storytelling is in the work to build a welcoming community.

It’s easy to view people as one, homogenous group and distance ourselves from them with negative stereotypes. All people experiencing homelessness are strung-out drug addicts. All republicans are racist and sexist. All liberals are judgemental socialists. All feminists hate men. All refugees and immigrants are dangerous and here to steal our jobs.

It’s our human nature to group people together and to believe a single story, so we tell ourselves these lies to feel safe.

Only when we begin to hear many individual stories do we break down these walls built with the heavy bricks of stereotypes. We begin to see each other as fellow humans to whom we can relate to and empathize with.

I see the need for storytelling in Grand Rapids, and I see it in South Africa.

With the storytelling skills I learned at Treetops, I can continue doing the work I love—reminding others that we are all humans, all image bearers of a loving God.

It’s easy to look at this broken world and wonder why we even try to help. Yet, I learned from the women at Treetops, who lead with poise and a fierce, fighting love, that we can indeed make a difference with our little lives.

These women are guided by this love, by a conviction that we are called to serve humbly, to fight for justice, and to welcome all with wide, open arms. I could not have asked for better mentors and friends. And these women are surrounded by a loving and supportive community.

With conversations, storytelling, welcome tees, and open doors, we—the Collective—are making a difference.

I have seen it in Grand Rapids, and I am seeing it in South Africa. Our small actions and determination can create big movements.

Spreading welcome is not an easy thing. A closed door is often safer than an open door, for when a door is open, we never know what might walk through. But I have seen the transformative power that welcome has, and I have felt the very same power. I have watched individuals blossom under the warmth of a welcoming smile. I have felt welcome wash away the cold fear of moving to a new country.

When we welcome others to our table, we give them far more than a seat. We give them a chance to grow roots, to feel safe, and to make their voices heard.

In the last year, I have grown so much, and a large part of this was thanks to my time at Treetops. I have grown in my career and job-pursuits, and I have grown as a person. I look forward to this next year in South Africa, in which I can continue learning from refugees and continue growing the skills I developed at Treetops. In a country that long suffered the consequences of single stories and closed doors, I am excited to continue learning the healing power of storytelling and spreading welcome.

Interested in interning with Treetops Collective? We’re currently hiring a Business & Marketing Intern, a Community Development Storytelling Intern, a Development Intern, and a Graphic Design Intern to start in January of 2019. Learn more here!