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 firstname.lastname@example.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.