Empowering new Americans through relationships, product development

At Treetops Collective, empowering refugees is their top priority. Founded in 2017 with the goal of welcoming new Americans through a variety of programs, the nonprofit is now a comprehensive system of relationships based on shared goals of education, financial independence, and community building. Mucyo Peninah, a participant in multiple Treetops programs, embarked on a journey of mental health and entrepreneurship, and now shares her lessons with the diverse and dynamic New American community in Grand Rapids.

One such pillar of Treetops’ mission is the Sister Circles Program, a yearly cohort of teen refugees that meet monthly, guide each other through personal goals, and explore topics of interest like relationships, personal finance, mental health, and body image. Local community members — oftentimes New Americans themselves — are invited to speak at monthly meetings, sharing their personal experiences and wisdom from their careers. Speakers have included Christine Mwangi, founder of Be a Rose, who explored body image and cultural beauty norms; and East Kentwood High School Kathryn Vanoveren, who explored the high school experience for New Americans.

“The partnership is filled with connection, fostering a new friendship, making local connections to resources or opportunities, while also working to create appreciation and respect for the beautiful diversity that comes with a welcoming community,” says Tarah Carnahan, Treetops’ executive director and co-founder.

Mucyo Peninah, a refugee who moved to the United States from the Congo in 2015, first became acquainted with Treetops through Sister Circles. "It was a very, like, life-changing opportunity for me," says Peninah. A shy teen who struggled with social interaction upon arriving in the United States, Peninah flourished in the program, building relationships and gaining confidence. "They taught me like to be myself … they taught me it's okay to be unique and different," she adds.

Participants of Sister Circles are later invited to participate in the Social Enterprise Internship, “a 10-week program focused on identifying strengths, having a first job experience, collaborative design, and story-telling,” says Carnahan. In these 10 weeks, teens learn skills in communication and sales, among others, and earn a stipend for their participation. The program also involves partnering with a local business leader in the development of their own product. Past entrepreneur partners have included Samantha Macintosch of Dime and Regal and Jessica Fields from Knots of Love.

Peninah, with an interest in writing amidst her journey for self expression, partnered with James Fry of Germination Labs in the creation of a journal of empowerment. The wire bound journal offers daily writing prompts, as well as inspirational quotes and blank pages. Peninah notes that the internship’s product development is "Based on who you are...and what you want your product to say about you …

That’s why I chose the journal because I love writing.”

“It's been an honor to walk alongside Peninah through this Treetops' experience from her beginning of begrudgingly joining us for a first workshop, to speaking into pain with power encouraging the teens in her cohort, to boldly making a dream become a reality with the creation of her mindfulness journal, to now stepping into leadership stewarding relationships and being a connector to the young women in our program who are coming after her,” says Carnahan.

“She intends to use her mental health journey for good, to encourage other young women to be mindful, acknowledge their feelings and journal to find peace and clarity.”

Peninah launched her Self Empowerment Journal in March 2020. Since then, she has continued to speak about her mental health journey, and has even sold 40 journals to a Hope College professor who plans to use them in her curriculum. The professor has even invited Peninah to speak to the class about her experiences.

Through programs such as Sister Circles and the Teen Social Enterprise internship, Treetops aims to foster a welcoming and empowering community for New Americans. Even amid COVID-19, the nonprofit was able to continue its internship remotely, providing each teen participant with a laptop within a few weeks' of mandated school closures.

"They taught me, like, to be myself,” says Peninah. “They taught me it's okay to be unique and different.” And through her journal, she seeks to pay this lesson forward.

"It's okay to say what I feel. It's okay to want to help others ... no matter how different I am."

Images courtesy Treetops Collective.

Treetops hosts its Annual Celebration and Virtual Auction on September 22. For more information, click here
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