Every morning the little yellow school bus pulls up in front of the Cherry Tree Club preschool in West Windsor. The children tumble out of the bus onto the sidewalk laughing and jostling each other in their haste to get to the front door. It is a scene played out each day in front of many schools, but here the laughter has a special resonance. These children are among the poorest and most vulnerable in Mercer County. They are, or were until very recently, homeless. Their lives are full of chaos and uncertainty as their parents struggle to provide even the most basic necessities.

But here, at the Cherry Tree Club, they are greeted with love and understanding. They run and laugh and play just like other children. For more than 20 years the Cherry Tree Club has provided a free, high quality, year round preschool education for the most vulnerable children in our community. The school does far more than a typical preschool — it provides free transportation, two meals a day, and a host of special services tailored to the children’s special needs. Professionals and a team of local volunteers provide a high staff/child ratio which allows each child to receive the individual attention they so desperately need.

Due to poverty and homelessness, these young children are vulnerable to developmental and emotional difficulties that can lead to early school failure and set the stage for a lifetime of struggle. Research shows that homeless children are three times more likely to suffer from emotional problems and twice as likely to go hungry as children with homes.

The Cherry Tree Club combats these odds by providing a safe haven where the children can play and learn free of the stress that so often accompanies poverty. In the large cheerful classroom the children play with building blocks and puzzles, on sunny days they run around the large outdoor play area or dig in the vegetable garden planted and maintained by volunteers.

One by one they are pulled aside by specialists who address their special needs, providing school readiness skills, speech therapy, or therapeutic services. As a group they clamor down the hall to the dining room, where volunteers have prepared their lunch with food donated by local churches and businesses.

Above all else the Cherry Tree Club is a community effort. A joint project of HomeFront and the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, the school could not survive without the support of the entire Mercer County community. Government funding does not begin to cover the cost of the program. Individuals, local service groups,houses of worship, and local businesses all pitch in to provide the volunteers, food, classroom supplies, and funds needed to keep the school running.

To find out more about the Cherry Tree Club, to donate and to explore volunteer opportunities visit www.thecherrytreeclub.org.

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