At a large wooden picnic table in the backyard of Portis Family Home at 226 S. Huntington Ave., a young mother braids her daughter’s hair. They sit in the shade of a tall ash tree, heavy with late summer leaves, as they await the arrival of Miss Judy.
To those who know her professionally, Judith Bumbalo is a pediatric nurse, holder of a master’s degree in maternal and child health and a Ph.D. in child development, and an expert in her field. But to the mothers and their children in this Jamaica Plain homeless shelter, “Miss Judy” is a well-loved PAL.
For two hours per week, Bumbalo volunteers as a Playspace Activity Leader (PAL) through Horizons for Homeless Children’s (HHC) Playspace Programs. The agency installs recreational and educational spaces called Playspaces in family homeless shelters throughout Massachusetts, equipped with blocks, puppets, puzzles and craft supplies. In these Playspaces, children living in shelter can imagine, create and play: the critical activities for promoting healthy development in young children.
Bumbalo’s role as a PAL is to encourage and facilitate fun and learning for the children at Portis Family Home. In her three years as a PAL, Bumbalo has become a fixture at the shelter.
When Bumbalo retired from nursing over three years ago, she found herself missing the interaction with children and mothers.
“I just couldn’t give it up, even when I retired. I started working in pediatric nursing in a hospital 50 years ago, and I’ve enjoyed a long career working with mothers and kids,” Bumbalo said.
An HHC ad in the Gazette caught her eye. “The ad quite clearly stated that I’d be working with children in homeless shelters. I’ve worked a lot with kids in poverty in different ways, and that was very much of interest to me.”
Now, a PAL for three years, Bumbalo has created a fun and positive environment for the children and has provided a listening ear for the mothers at Portis Family Home. Shelter staff describes her as a “grandmother figure to the kids and mothers at Portis.”
“Just by being a consistent presence, I’ve been lucky to become a part of this shelter,” said Bumbalo. “It doesn’t take long for the kids to learn your name, and know that you’ll be there for them each week.”
At her arrival, the children at the shelter all clamor for her attention. “What will we do today, Miss Judy?” asks one excited child. “We’re going to play!” says Bumbalo.
Before she began her Playspace shift one day earlier this year, Bumbalo spoke with a mother, who confessed that she missed several classes that week in school. Bumbalo encouraged her to keep working, and the young woman, heartened, agreed: “I have a lot of stuff going on right now, but I know dropping out of school is not an option.”
“There’s a great need for consistency in homeless kids from the adults in their life,” said Bumbalo. “So many of them have only chaotic, short-term experiences.”
The backyard picnic table has become somewhat of a symbol for Bumbalo’s lasting impact on the children. Bumbalo donated the table last summer, and the older children enjoyed painting it together. “Every week, one of the kids will bring up the picnic table project, remembering how much fun they had painting it. You don’t realize how meaningful some of this stuff is,” she said.
PALs are greatly needed in Boston-area homeless shelters.
“Being a PAL has been an overwhelmingly positive experience,” said Bumbalo. “The rewards are certainly great.”
To learn more about becoming a PAL, call 617-553-5455 or visit horizonsforhomelesschildren.org.
From press materials provided by Horizons for Homeless Children.