Tag Archives: Horizons for Homeless Children

This Christmas give the joy of play!

Every child has the right to joyful play!

By Casey Zink, Horizons for Homeless Children

The homeless shelter system in Massachusetts is primarily designed for adults, with staff focused on helping residents reach self-sufficiency. Often there is less bandwidth to support the extensive needs of children experiencing homelessness. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, frequent creative play is integral to developing executive functioning skills in young children.

Horizons for Homeless Children’s Playspace Program, started in 1990, embodies our belief that every child has the right to joyful play experiences.
Playspaces are child-friendly rooms that Horizons has installed in more than 120 partner shelters across the state of Massachusetts. There are 12 shelter partners in Worcester, and 19 shelter partners in Central MA. Playspaces are designed – and play resources are carefully selected – to reflect the needs of children ages 0-6 experiencing trauma. Horizons’ Playspaces are created to give children a dedicated place to play and grow, and build connections with other caring adults who are committed to their success.

Our volunteers or Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs) are the heart of the Playspace Program. Our 1,200 PALs attend weekly shifts in Playspaces across the state and bring the joy of play to thousands of children. We currently offer 340 Playspace shifts a week—which is 680 hours of play each week for the children residing in shelters. Playspace not only gives children time to play; it also gives their parents time to take classes, pursue permanent housing opportunities, or spend much needed time on self-care.

This holiday season, we’re asking you to help support the Central MA Playspace Program. Volunteering as a PAL is a wonderful way to make a difference in the lives of young children experiencing homelessness in your community. We’re also in need of donations; we accept both financial gifts and items from our wish list. We have a specific wish list of items we are in great need of that has been created around the needs of the children we serve. Your donations help support Horizon’s Playspace Program.

To learn more about volunteering, visit us online at www.horizonschildren.org.


An interview with Mary S., a PAL from the Central Region who recently celebrated 20 years volunteering with Horizons:

Why did you start with Horizons?

When I first heard the commercial for Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs) for Horizons for Homeless Children on the radio, I felt a tug in my heart. It is hard to imagine a person without a home, especially a child. It was at that moment that I knew Horizons was going to become a part of my weekly routine. It became such a natural part of my routine and 19 years later, the 6 months felt like 6 minutes and the 19 years feels like 19 hours but the number of children and families that touched my heart are countless.

What do you enjoy most about being a PAL?

When I arrive at the shelter programs, I am greeted by smiles, hugs, and loud voices announcing the “Volunteers Are Here”! In addition, over the years I had the opportunity to volunteer with many PALS and work closely with shelter and Horizons’ staff, where everlasting friendships and memories were formed.
Why would you recommend being a PAL?
The gift of time of only 2 hours a week is priceless to young children and their families. Too often people feel that homelessness is too big to conquer, but I have learned that we can all make a difference in our own way. I really enjoy being a PAL and I cannot imagine a weekly routine without it!

Are there any specific stories that stick out in your memory?

When I think of being a PAL, I carry around images of sticky fingers, paint-stained clothing, dress-up play, crazy dance contests, and the time when a room full of crying, tired children, switched to laughter when I decided to sing a loud rendition of “Old McDonald Had a Farm”. There were many children who did not separate from their moms and after several weeks of having fun, they would join the children who did not want us to leave!

What impact has volunteering at Horizons had on your life?

I became a PAL because I truly believed that by spending time with a child I could make a difference — even if it was only for two hours a week. What I did not realize 19 years ago was how much it would change my own life. Each family comes to the shelter with their own challenging stories leaving family, friends, and personal belongings behind – looking for a better life. I have been inspired by the great courage, determination and strength evident in many of the parents to create something better for their families.

What one piece of advice would you give to a new PAL?

Have fun! Follow the lead of the children. If it is challenging to engage a child in a task, start playing, dancing or singing and they will eventually join in! Don’t hesitate to ask for help since, due to their unique experiences, they may exhibit some extreme emotions. The staff is always there to help!

Is there anything else about your experience that you’d like to share?

My pay is the peace I feel in my heart when I leave each week – and the satisfaction that the little bit of kindness we bring to the shelters can actually take someone who is overwhelmed and restore their sense of hope.


Inspired to get involved with Horizons?

There are many way to give back this holiday season – and beyond!

We have a wish list for our regional Playspaces, and are in desperate need of certain supplies. To get a full list, please email central@horizonschildren.org.

We also have three upcoming PAL trainings in Central MA:
Leominster : Thursday 1/19, 6-9pm
Worcester : Saturday 2/4, 10-1pm
Framingham: Wednesday 3/8, 6-9pm

Apply to be a PAL online by registering for training, please visit www.horizonschildren.org/PALapplication.

Please support providing immediate childcare assistance to homeless families!


Seeking written testimony on behalf of House Bill 79/Senate Bill 286, an Act providing immediate childcare assistance to homeless families, in preparation for hearings that will take place this fall.  

We are encouraged with the tremendous support for this legislation, which has garnered over 40 co-sponsors across the House and the Senate. 

The Legislation:

The goal of this bill is to reinstate a former policy providing immediate access to childcare for children and families experiencing homelessness.

This, as you know, would help thousands of families across Massachusetts stabilize during times of crisis, and ensure children are able to access opportunities for early childhood education/School Age care without interruption or delay.

When this Immediate Access policy was formerly in place, our annual survey of family shelters across Massachusetts documented that the number of homeless children with access to early education and care rose from 47% in 2007 to 64% in 2008.

With this policy reinstated, we will be able to help families on their paths to achieve economic stability, and to ensure the long-term well-being of their children.

This bill is critically important as we work to address the crisis of family homelessness in Massachusetts, and to ensure that children experiencing homelessness and housing instability do not miss out on fundamentally important early learning experiences.

Will You Help Us Gather Voices?

In preparation for the second and final hearing for this legislation –the Senate version was heard by the Joint Committee on Education two weeks ago – which will be for the House version, with the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities (date TBD)– we would like to collect written testimony on the bill’s behalf from constituents across the state. 

We are working with our partners at Liberty Square Group, who will be happy to speak with interested individuals via telephone to actually craft the testimony. 

Once they draft it, they would send it back for review and approval to be submitted in advance of the actual hearing date.   

Please let me know if you are willing to speak on behalf of the value that legislation like this would have on them/those they serve.  (We are working with Committee staff to identify the exact date of the hearing, and will get you that information as soon as we have it!). 

Please share this request, as we would like to have as much upfront support for this bill as possible.

I am happy to answer any of your questions/speak further about next steps.

Thank you!

Emily Levine, director of Policy & Advocacy

Horizons for Homeless Children
1705 Columbus Avenue
Roxbury, MA 02119
T: 617-553-5430
F: 617.445.2124

Local agency brightening homeless children’s lives

By Sarah Fujiwara

It is estimated that 100,000 children across the state of Massachusetts experience homelessness. Almost half of these children are under the age of 6. On a national level, this escalating crisis leaves 1.6 million children without homes each year. Family homelessness is the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, making up 41% of the larger group and remains largely invisible due to the transitory nature of the children and families languishing in these precarious situations.

In response, Horizons for Homeless Children created a program entitled “Playspaces” in shelters or hotels throughout each region of the Commonwealth. Playspaces are areas dedicated to homeless children, fostering their growth and allowing them to be just kids. They are equipped with books, toys, and art supplies in order to enrich and educate young children “living” in shelters throughout the state. Over 1,400 trained volunteers known as Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs) participate in educational play activities with over 2,200 children each week in more than 140 family shelters across Massachusetts. Two such volunteers, Patricia and Charles Surette, are stand-out PALs who are working hard to turn the tide of family homelessness.

Each week for two hours, Patricia Surette and her son, Charles (Chaz), facilitate games and activities with children living at Shepherd’s Place Family Homeless Shelter in Worcester. The Surettes have read books, built block towers, played dress up, and made arts and crafts as Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs) for over two years.

Their dedication and attentiveness to the children they serve offers respite from the stressful effects of homelessness, fosters positive social connections, and builds self-esteem – crucial tools for healing trauma and building resiliency.

The mother/son team goes above and beyond their volunteer commitment. Whenever other PAL volunteers have scheduling conflicts, they make themselves available to fill in on other shifts so that the children don’t miss out on crucial play time. They have donated over 500 combined volunteer hours.

For children living in shelter, exposure to positive adult influences and fun, developmental opportunities can be limited. Early instruction and education are critical to children in homeless shelters.

Charles (Chaz) talks about his experience here. “I started at Shepherd’s Place more than two years ago, when I had just turned sixteen. I didn’t really know what to expect going into this, since I had never worked with kids hands-on before. Naturally, I was pretty apprehensive, but I was going with my mom, so I figured she’d help me along.

“Right from the get-go, however, I was interacting with the children far more than I thought I would, and I was surprised to find that they took to me right away! I quickly found myself enmeshed in games and activities of all kinds, ranging from play-doh and paints to role-playing and dancing. I was amazed how quickly I became accustomed to interacting with kids I had never met before, and also how I became attached to them. More than two years have gone by since I first started volunteering as a PAL at Shepherd’s Place I, and I can honestly say it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. To be able to make a difference in the lives of kids and their families in a way I never thought is very fulfilling indeed.

Over time, you come to know them; you learn their likes and dislikes, their mannerisms, and all the little quirks that make children unique. I’ve had the opportunity to see infants become toddlers and beyond, and that means seeing them develop their own personalities as they get older. It’s really quite endearing to see small children essentially begin to function as “little people,” as they each interact with you and one another in unique ways.

What started as “volunteering” turned more into an incredible life experience. We have shared birthdays and holidays with the kids while they were in the shelter and it is always bittersweet when they leave, as we are happy they have found homes, but we miss them and still wonder how they are doing. We have watched babies learn to walk, Chaz has helped kids with their homework, and we have had tears at the end of the night as the kids do not want us to leave. This experience has been indescribable…”
We are grateful to the Surettes for their commitment to the children of Shepherd’s Place and to the Playspace Programs.

The Playspace Programs needs more volunteers! For information on becoming a PAL, visit www.horizonsforhomelesschildren.org or call 508-755-2615

Letting Kids Be Kids

Horizons for Homeless Children (HHC) was established in 1988 in response to the unmet needs of the alarming number of children living in homeless shelters. HHC began providing family homeless shelters in Boston with “Playspaces” and trained volunteers in 1990, and has since expanded to provide these services in 147 family shelters throughout Massachusetts.

HHC’s Community Children’s Centers (CCC’s) began in Boston in 1994 and have since expanded to three, providing high quality early education and care to 175 homeless children each day and upwards of 300 over the course of a year, as well as support services to help their families become economically self-sufficient.

In addition to the Playspaces and Community Children’s Centers, HHC also provides continued support to children and families after they have moved to permanent housing to ensure their continued success through its Family Partnership Program; shares best practices with educators and service providers throughout the country, including hosting a national conference, through its Training and Technical Assistance program; and advocates for the needs of homeless children among policymakers and the public through its Policy and Advocacy initiative.