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.