Imagine yourself three or four years old, possessing a mind with boundless direction-unfettered by time. The world was your playground, seemingly infinite and everlastingly innocent. Many of us imagine a time free of worry, filled with exploration and devoted to endless possibilities. Our minds were like sponges, absorbing every dollop of information that fell within inches of our realm of potentiality.
Now again imagine yourself at four years old. But now you are often without food. You feel a ping in your stomach from meal to meal, experiencing hunger daily. You have moved numerous times in your brief existence, slept in many different beds, from motel to motel to homeless shelter; you have no place to call home. You have often been mistreated and you feel ever so small in a big, scary world. And with your parents struggling more than ever, there is a feeling for you that there is no way out.
These are the kinds of struggles no child should ever have to endure. However, this is the reality that many children at Cherry Tree Club face every day.
The Cherry Tree Club is a government-licensed preschool program for homeless and at-risk children between the ages of three and five in Mercer County, New Jersey, located in Princeton Junction.
According to their website, the Cherry Tree Club’s goal is “to provide a loving and nurturing environment that allows the children to thrive and grow emotionally, socially and academically.”
This nonprofit organization, in partnership with The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and HomeFront, gives destitute children an opportunity to have a normal preschool experience. The organization ensures that every child in its program is cared for and receives the resources every child deserves. Throughout the year, families are signing up for their children to become a part of the program.
Many of these underprivileged children struggle with insecurity and low self-esteem. Now, in its 20th year, the Cherry Tree Club gives its students an opportunity to feel important, included and safe.
“It is the same goal for every student,” said Lead Teacher Shaneica Barnes. “We want them to start kindergarten on the same academic level as any other child.”
However, Barnes adds that this goal is more difficult than it may seem. Many of the children come into the program with delayed development due to their domestic situations.
Nine out of the 30 Cherry Tree Club students have little speech to no speech at all. Some of the children have witnessed brutality or been subject to mistreatment, and all have experienced hunger. The preschool has a large number of volunteers, giving the children the individual attention they so desperately need.
Most of the children in the program change residences often. And so, along with being fed breakfast, snacks and a hot lunch, the children receive special care and affection from the staff to combat self-deprecation and self-doubt.
From play therapy to pre-literacy development to violin lessons for the older students, the Cherry Tree Club works diligently to ensure each child feels a sense of accomplishment.
Barnes said that two twin boys came into the program from the inner city a few years ago. Their father was fresh out of jail. Barnes shared, “They did not know how to behave like children. By the time they finished in our program, they were enthusiastic to learn, and were behaving like well-mannered children. That is what this program is all about.”
Funded largely by private donations, the Cherry Tree Club has created a service that is making a grand impact on many children’s lives.
Director Wendy Schutzer stated, “It is not easy to support the cost of the program.” While the program receives McKinney grants from the state government, it remains both “frustrating” and “a challenge” to keep the program fully funded.
Schutzer is currently working with the state to try and get the families to receive childcare subsidies.
For six hours, five days a week, these children can escape from the incommodities of a small motel room or homeless shelter and receive the positive feedback, socialization and even a little bit extra. Something as simple as a place to run around freely and safely outdoors can be really special to a child who comes from an impoverished neighborhood.
One student, Brandon, said, “My favorite part of Cherry Tree Club is play time outside!”
The organization does a fantastic job preparing the children with a lively curriculum for entering the public school system, but unfortunately, this is only the first step to a long staircase of challenges that lie ahead.
Cherry Tree Club
Phone: (609) 799-1753
Article written by Jared Wolf for the Fall 2014 edition of The Wall