In a large and cheerful yellow room, 12-year-old Dakota Hunzeker munches a muffin at a child-sized table.
The pixie-like blonde basks in the relaxed conversation with other children and with women from a local church about what each one did over the weekend.
The atmosphere inside the room is a stark contrast to the one outside. Beyond the walls of this converted motel conference room, residents of the run-down building wear sullen faces, full of defeat.
The Express Inn is “home” to people who would otherwise be homeless.
Yet here, in Colorado Springs, one church has gone beyond its walls to enter Dakota’s world, and that is how her world began to change.
Less than a year ago, Dakota lived here with her mom and 7-year-old brother, Tristan, while her dad, Bob, was in prison.
Returning “home” to his family after 2 years, Bob was hired to do maintenance work at the motel for $200 a month.
He and Dakota’s mother, Diane, desperately sought a way to earn more money and get out of the motel, but work was hard to find for someone with a prison record and no car.
Life at the motel was a daily struggle.
Then one day at the motel, Dakota met Stacy Butler, a woman from Woodmen Valley Chapel, a nearby church.
Cleaning and painting the conference room near the motel lobby, Stacy was creating an afterschool program for the children living at the motel.
Dakota introduced both herself and Tristan, since he rarely spoke to anyone.
Stacy immediately made the 2 feel welcome by inviting them to help decorate the room by dipping their hands in paint and leaving prints on the wall.
Stacy was starting a S.A.Y. Yes! Center for Youth Development®, part of a national strategy from Here’s Life Inner City®.
She and the people of Woodmen had chosen to follow the example of Christ by going beyond its walls to the community in need.
On the first day, Stacy made a game to match kids with volunteer adult mentors. Wearing nametags of things that go together, they had to find their match.
Dakota says, “I was French fries, so when Miss Kim, who was a hamburger, found me, we knew we were a match.”
“Miss Kim” Rizner volunteers at S.A.Y. Yes! As Dakota’s mentor, she not only explains the Bible and helps Dakota with homework, but she treats her as part of her family.
Thriving on the time and attention of Miss Kim, Dakota earns “S.A.Y. Yes! bucks” for activities like Scripture memory, and often trades them in for coupons to go on special outings with Kim.
Kim recalls when Dakota asked, “Do you know what a mall is?” Dakota wanted to go with Kim.
“I told her we could also get dinner,” Kim says, “but knowing Dakota loved spaghetti, I thought we could go to the Olive Garden before going to the mall.”
After ordering dinner, Dakota said the restaurant wasn’t what she’d imagined.
Kim says, “She’d seen all the commercials showing a room full of happy people. But as the room filled up, Dakota said, ‘This is more like what I expected.’”
“Miss Kim has become a really good friend. I love spending time with her,” says Dakota.
Kim helps Dakota with homework and provides a listening ear and godly direction, especially through some of the tough times Dakota and her family have faced.
When Dakota told Kim that she was regularly having nightmares, Kim encouraged her to talk to God and to read her Bible. Now, Dakota has made a habit of praying and reading her Bible every night.
While Dakota and Tristan were each getting help with school and age-appropriate Bible teaching from mentors at S.A.Y. Yes!, the church had more opportunity to develop a relationship with their parents.
Dick Siever, who heads up the community service ministry at Woodmen, befriended Bob and helped him find a job at a grease recycling company, owned by another Woodmen member.
Bob had a route including restaurants and schools where he routinely cleaned out their grease traps.
A hard worker, Bob was soon earning enough to move his family out of the motel and into a house.
Dakota remembers moving day, the week before Thanksgiving. “I felt like I was on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition because we suddenly had a house and not the motel room.”
Stacy and others from the church wanted to surprise Dakota and Tristan by supplying the home with furniture. Though most of it was used, the family couldn’t be more thankful.
“They thought of everything,” says Dakota. “They even gave me and Tristan our own rooms.”
By putting up a curtain between the beds, Stacy converted 1 room into 2.
Dakota says, “I’d almost forgotten what it was like to have so much space.”
“But the best part,” says Dakota, “was since it was almost Christmas, they put up a tree for us. We’d forgotten that too -- what it was like to have Christmas.”
Through the truth they were hearing and the love shown them by the church -- inside and outside its walls -- Bob and Diane each returned to faith in God.
“It was a hard road going through prison,” Bob says. “I thought, OK, I did wrong, but I was put here for a reason. It was like a wake-up call from God.”
As God reached out to him through the people at Woodmen, Bob says, “I felt like I could talk to God again.”
Bob and Diane began actively participating with Woodmen Valley and volunteering as a family with the church’s mobile kitchen and in the community.
When Dick Siever told Bob he understood he and Diane weren’t married, Dick asked, “Do you want to get married?”
Bob told Dick he and Diane did want to be married, but that they were waiting until they could afford to.
Within a week, Dick had everything planned out, from premarital counseling to rallying people at the church.
Diane remembers walking down the aisle in her dress from Goodwill: “When I looked down the aisle and saw my family waiting for me, I just started crying. Everything was so beautiful.”
The wedding was testimony of God’s love for them, shown through the church.
He continued showing them His love that spring by bringing Dakota and Tristan into a relationship with Himself.
At Easter, the group from S.A.Y. Yes! went to see The Crown, a passion play. When the play ended, the people in the audience were invited to trust their lives to Christ.
Dakota remembers, “All 6 of us kids went up to pray. When we got home, Tristan ran over to Miss Stacy and said, ‘Today I asked Jesus into my heart!’ and she started to cry.”
A lot has changed for Dakota since the church stepped into her world, but this young girl still has hurts to be healed and choices to make as she becomes a young adult.
“My hopes for Dakota would be that she continues to love God’s Word and to realize God’s plan for her life,” says Kim.
Dakota dreams of being an obstetrician when she grows up, a dream of bringing healthy new life into the world.
Even at 12, she has a hope, brighter than the sunshine yellow room in the Express Inn.
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