Many articles are written in magazines that encourage us to play more. While those magazines speak to us on an adult level and why playtime can reduce stress in our otherwise busy lives, play is vitally important to the very young. Unfortunately not all children have the luxury of their own room or play area. Many children and families are living in shelters or cars. More than 100,000 children in Massachusetts experience homelessness every day, half of which are under the age of six. These numbers are staggering and unfortunately what we don’t see, we don’t think about.
There is one organization that not only sees the problem but they have gone to great lengths in doing something about it. Horizons for Homeless Children established its Playspace Programs in 1990, an initiative introduced to better serve Boston’s homeless children who resided in area shelters but lacked designated play areas. The purpose of the Playspace Programs was to build, in joint eff ort with residents and staff of family shelters, age-appropriate spaces that included books, games, toys, art supplies and the-all important tools to enhance the life of a child. These tools are integral for verbal, physical, social and language skills needed for development, which research clearly shows is the earliest years – when a child’s brain is developing. That process of development is a result of the child’s early experiences. Homelessness disrupts that process.
Colette O’Neill, Director of Communications, and many other dedicated employees have been working tirelessly in an eff ort to not only bring about awareness but also tackle it from the inside. The hope is to eradicate homelessness, but the problem is here. It is in this “now” moment that Horizons for Homeless Children develops and grows their program daily.
Six years ago, The Playspace Programs expanded statewide. From Worcester to Holyoke to Lawrence to New Bedford, today there are 140 Massachusetts Playspaces serving more than 2,200 homeless children each week. The agency also recruits, trains and places volunteers called Playspace Activity Leaders (PALS) to work with the children in shelters. Since its inception more than 11,500 community members have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of homeless children by spending two hours a week playing, interacting and mentoring them.
While the Playspace Program does ask for a six-month commitment, Ms. O’Neill was quick to point out that, “the majority of PALS (over 70 percent), stay on much longer than the six-month commitment which is testament to the highly rewarding volunteer experience.”
The training sessions run roughly every three weeks across the state, on either two consecutive weeknights (3 hours each night) or one 6-hour Saturday session.
Child and family homelessness is a crisis in our community. No permanence, no stability. This not only disrupts their lives but also aff ects their social and emotional development as well as academic readiness.
What can you do?
Become a volunteer – Horizons for Homeless Children needs a steady weekly commitment of at least two hours. Qualifications necessary are: a strong interest in preschool and school age children; patience; dependability; and sensitivity to homeless issues. Volunteers must be at least 16 years old. Call Kari Lefort, Playspace Programs Central/West Managing Director, at 508-755-2615, for direction on all volunteer opportunities.
Hold a Drive Event at your High School – Horizons for Homeless Children is always in need of toys, books and other supplies, particularly at this time of year. Visit www. horizonsforhomelesschildren. org for more information.
Grab a friend, a classmate or a team and get involved!
In the spirit of the season, lets make time for play. With the help of trained volunteers, lives are being changed, one child, one smile at a time.