WASHINGTON, DC—When a woman died of whooping cough at D. C.’s Federal City Shelter in 2000, a seven-year-old boy was the one who found her body in the bathroom. The shelter was notorious—filled with mice, roaches, and occasional dead bodies. Jamila Larson, a child advocate and social worker, read the troubling news in the newspaper and asked for a tour. She thought she might organize a toy drive among her coworkers at the Children’s Defense Fund and bring a little cheer to the kids.
What Jamila found at the shelter appalled her. “I saw rows of metal bunk beds, sheets for doors, children languishing in the hallways, half-dressed, not a single toy in sight.” She asked the woman giving her the tour about the apparent lack of toys. The response was that toys were kept locked in a closet so the kids wouldn’t make a mess.
It became clear to Jamila that the issue was much larger than mere toy donation. The adults had a smoky TV lounge for their entertainment, but the children had, literally, nothing. These were certainly “not child-friendly spaces,” Jamila says, “to help a family get back on their feet.”
With one of her closest friends, Regina Cline, Jamila began advocating for child-friendly space at the Federal City Shelter managed by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). They soon learned that it wasn’t just that city-funded shelters lacked play-spaces for children, but that even nicer transitional housing programs with existing play-spaces didn’t have the staff to run them.
“We started out in a mix of transitional housing programs that valued the service that we could provide, and really gritty emergency shelters that didn’t quite understand what we were doing.” Jamila says. “We really had to fight our way to get in.”
Undaunted, she organized and trained volunteers who made a commitment to running children’s play centers. Kids and volunteers dug into Play-Doh, built villages out of blocks, and play-acted in costumes. And when the city moved children out of Federal City, The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, founded in 2003, followed their families to their new accommodations, offering more time and opportunities for the children to play.
These were kids under tremendous emotional stress. According to a Harvard Medical School study, almost half of school-aged homeless children suffer from anxiety and depression. They are twice as likely to be suspended or repeat a grade as other impoverished children.
Which is why play is so crucial for their emotional well-being and development. While by no means a solution for all their problems, play does allow children be imaginative, build up mental and emotional strength, learn to share, lessen their stress levels (which can be overwhelming), and to stick up for themselves. It lets kids be kids. Playtime also gives overburdened parents a chance to take care of themselves, have a shower, cook dinner, straighten up their rooms, or meet with a caseworker. “The parents come back visibly more relaxed after a couple hours’ break,” says Jamila.
Such was the case for an eight-year-old girl, whose mother died. Her now-single-parent father approached a Playtime Project volunteer, overwhelmed with his parenting responsibilities while he was grieving. Playtime Project became a support for the family, and the girl signed up for the preteen program and Playtime Project’s Girls on the Run Team. Last September she finished her second 5K race with Playtime. And when Playtime Project noticed that a two-year-old boy’s language development was falling behind, they tapped into his ear for music. By singing and reading at Playtime—and sharing books and songs with his mom—the little boy has begun adding new words to his vocabulary every day.
As much as the kids appreciate the time and attention, “the volunteers really love the opportunity to get out from behind their desks—you know, we’ve all had office jobs—and sit down on the floor and take out a game of Candy Land or throw around a football, make a sculpture with clay,” says Jamila.
For its first five years, Playtime Project was entirely volunteer-run, even as it expanded to five different D.C. shelters. For six years, Jamila simultaneously worked full-time as a social worker during the day and served as Playtime Project’s volunteer executive director in her few spare hours. Finally, she raised enough money to support their growing model and get staff in place.
Playtime Project can now offer play as well as developmental assessments of children who might have delays, which Jamila notes, “is disproportionately common in the shelter environment.”
At their largest site in the D.C. General Emergency Family Shelter, Playtime Project serves a hundred children a week, infants through teens. There are spaces for toddlers, elementary-aged kids, preteens, and a tutoring program for teenagers.
“So many kids who experience homelessness are really struggling in school,” Jamila says, “and obviously, we want to do what we can to break the cycle of homelessness.”
Over the eighteen years that Jamila has lived in D.C., however, the demographics of homelessness have shifted dramatically, with intensive new property developments making a huge impact. “People joke that every day they go down U Street or 14th Street,” she says, “a new restaurant pops up that wasn’t there before.” Streets once unattractive to the city’s transient young professionals are now cluttered with expensive condos, shops, and eateries. Meanwhile, the city has lost half of its affordable housing units in the past decade—especially dire news as D.C. is the only American city where homelessness has doubled in the last year. According to D.C. public schools, there are 2,453 school-aged homeless children in the District. Advocates estimate that if you include babies and younger children, that number is closer to 5,000.
If things were bleak when Jamila first started the Playtime Project, the need has only become more apparent over time. When the recession and subsequent foreclosures led to a crush of families seeking shelter, local policy changes have trimmed money for affordable housing and services, made it more difficult to get into shelters, and families are now subjected to harsher penalties if they fail to meet job-training requirements.
So while it’s getting even harder to be homeless in D.C., Playtime Project is making a real difference in the lives of homeless children.
Want to Get Involved?
Playtime Project relies on a small staff and large group of volunteers, but we simply would not be able to make Playtime happen each and every week without the generous donations of people like you! We are funded entirely by individuals and small foundations.
Your donations allow us to sustain and expand our thirteen weekly programs by providing healthy snacks, craft materials and therapeutic tools for play, toys, learning supplies and field trip expenses for the youth we serve. Furthermore, contributions allow us to respond immediately to the growing and changing needs of homeless families.DONATE HERE
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