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Homeless children get a place to play in Holyoke

By Dan Cooper

Staff Intern

HOLYOKE - The non-profit Horizons for Homeless Children, an organization out of Boston, opened a new Playspace for homeless children at the Carmen Vasquez Apartments at the intersection of Dwight and Clinton Streets.

"A Playspace is an educational and recreational space where children from ages zero to six can learn and grow," Colette O'Neill, the communications specialist for Horizons for Homeless Children, told Reminder Publications. "We have building blocks, books, and educational toys, as well as a volunteer program.

"Volunteers come in for two hours a week. We work around their schedules and we train them," O'Neill said. She added that there are currently 1,000 volunteers in the program.

"They only have to work for six months, but many of them stay beyond that," O'Neill said.

O'Neill said the Playspace program in Massachusetts has been very successful. "Out of 150 family homeless shelters, 135 have a Playspace," she said. "It has been so successful, in fact, that other homeless shelters across the country are modeling our idea and building Playspaces."

O'Neill said the Playspace is beneficial not only to the children, but to the parents as well. "It gives them [parents] a chance to think about their future. They can find jobs, go back to school, look for a permanent place to live, and things like that," she said.

O'Neill said the program focuses on children up to age six because that is the age their brains are growing the most. "There is a theory that the amount of stress a six year old homeless child goes through is equivalent to a soldier returning from a war," O'Neill said. "The Playspace is designed to create a routine. The lack of a routine is really stressful on a six-year-old," O'Neill said.

She said there are 40,000 children six and under in Massachusetts who are homeless. "Our organization has helped about 2,000 children every week in 17 years," O'Neill said.

O'Neill said the Playspace program started in 1990. "Horizons for Homeless Children began in the late 1980's," she said. "It was designed to help parents and children get back on their feet. The Playspace program was developed to help shelters educate the children of homeless parents," O'Neill added.

"We have a department devoted to finding sites for Playspaces and if the need for one exists in a certain area, we build one there because we feel the issue is critical," O'Neill said.

Sarah Page, of the local organization HAP, Inc, which runs the Carmen Vasquez Apartments, said, "We put a Playspace up on Prospect Street in Springfield a couple of years ago and that went over well, so we decided to try one at this location."

"It's a project we've been working on for the last few months," Page said. "The transitional housing program already has a playroom, but it is non-educational, which makes this Playspace much more beneficial," Page said.

Page said it is going to service nine families who are homeless. "It will help the kids learn and the parents can obtain job skills, amongst other things," she said.

To become a Playspace volunteer, please call 532-0467.