CENTRAL JP—At Horizon for Homeless Children’s Community Children’s Center (CCC), 3-year-old children lift their arms as their teachers tie the sides of their bright blue smocks in preparation for creating works of art. Across the hall, 2-year-olds giggle as they sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the alphabet song.
Although they appear to be two ordinary classrooms in an ordinary early learning center, these children are homeless. The CCC, one of Horizons for Homeless Children’s programs, gives homeless children living in shelters the opportunity to learn, play and socialize with one another.
The mission of Horizons for Homeless Children, which has a CCC at 555 Amory St., is to improve the lives of homeless children and their families and to break the cycle of homelessness that reverberates through the generations. The non-profit organization, founded in 1988, provides education and care in the CCCs, and installs what it calls “Playspaces” in shelters throughout Massachchusetts. The CCCs and Playspaces serve about 2,500 children each year.
Horizons for Homeless Children aims to provide children with safety, security and a sense of routine they often do not have when homeless, according to Colette O’Neill, the director of communications.
“We help the children get through one of the darkest periods and try to help their parents get back on their feet,” said O’Neill. One of the goals of the organization, she added, is to help the children catch up in terms of school readiness so they’re on par with their housed peers.
Horizons for Homeless Children is financially supported by the public sector, namely state and federal funding, and the private sector, namely individuals, foundations, corporations and sponsorships.
Because of the economic recession, public support has been reduced, but the agency feels fortunate for its base of private support, according to O’Neill.
“Family homelessness has gained public attention; it resonates more with people because of the recession. The general public has gotten more involved to help those in need, either through donations or volunteerism,” she said.
The waiting list has also grown with the recession, said O’Neill, but the need has always been great.
In the future, the organization plans to extend the length of time spent with a family during their transition out of homelessness, and to connect them to the necessary resources and support systems.
“Homelessness is an issue I find to be completely unacceptable. Our work is critical,” said O’Neill.
The JP CCC and two others in Dorchester and Roxbury are easily accessible by public transportation. A van is also available to pick the children up from shelters and drive them to the CCC. Staffed by early education specialists, the three CCCs serve 175 children altogether, ages 2 months to 5-and-a-half years, each week.
Speech therapists work with the children, because, “Children are often behind developmentally and in speech when they first come here,” O’Neill said.
After arriving at 8 a.m., the children eat breakfast, engage in circle time and sing songs. Free play time, a structured curriculum, lunch, a nap and an activity follow. The CCC provides the children with two meals and one snack each day. The books, toys and furniture are donated.
“I can see how the children make progress each day they’re here. I’m hopeful that as they make their way forward they’ll continue to be successful in life,” said O’Neill.
Playspaces, unlike the CCCs, are shelter-based. Horizons for Homeless Children renovates a space in a family shelter and turns it into a child-friendly Playspace, equipped with toys, books and arts and crafts supplies.
Volunteers are recruited, trained, placed and supervised by Horizons for Homeless Children staff. There are more than 140 Playspaces across Massachusetts staffed by more than 1,250 volunteers. Each Playspace is open at least two hours each day.
Vanessa McGunnigle, a JP resident, volunteers every week at a Playspace at a shelter in Dorchester. She said she feels a tremendous amount of hope that her time spent with the children creates some stability and happiness for them.
“One of my most memorable experiences is of two young sisters. For their first two months at the Playspace, they didn’t make a peep, and were very reserved and nervous. Each time I saw them, we would read and play. They slowly started to come out of their shells—and now they’re the life of the party. That lets me know that we provided them with comfort and stability,” said McGunnigle.
The increasing number of shelters closing their doors because of statewide budget cuts has led many people to seek refuge in motels, according to O’Neill. “It’s difficult for us to install Playspaces in motels, but I’m happy to say we’re about to open the first one in a few weeks,” she said.
In addition to providing the children with education and social interaction, Horizons for Homeless Children offers the parents services directly, or points them in the direction of partnering agencies to help them transition out of homelessness.
Horizons for Homeless Children partners with service providers across the greater Boston area, including Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, Home for Little Wanderers, Brookline Music School and Child Witness to Violence.
The organization also works with public officials in state and federal government to increase public funding and to support statewide Playspace programs.
For more information, or to find out how to become a volunteer, visit www.horizonsforhomelesschildren.org