HOLYOKE Sitting on the floor of the newly built play area, David Garcia, 3, smiles as he runs a toy car along the blue carpet while Lesly Monserrate, 7, stares with pleasure at the picture she is quietly coloring.
Last Thursday afternoon, these two youngsters were among a group of excited children staying at The Family Place Shelter on Elm Street who burst into their newly built play area to build towering castles with blocks, read books, shimmy through a giant 'caterpillar,' play board games, color, or engage in the variety of other activities now available to them through the efforts of Horizons for Homeless Children (HHC).
Through its Playspace Program, the non-profit organization creates educationally stimulating volunteer-staffed "playspaces," targeted for children five and and under, at homeless shelters throughout the state.
The playspace, which is meant to engage children in fun activities while promoting learning, is built in collaboration with residents and staff of family shelter.
1990, HHC, dedicated to meeting the needs of homeless children and their families, established it's first Playspace Program in the city of Boston.
Two years ago, the organization expanded state-wide, and last Thursday, the children at the Elm Street shelter were on among the first to reap the benefits of its most recent expansion to Holyoke.
Leadership of the new Holyoke office, which serves the cities of Holyoke, Springfield, Northampton and other surrounding communities, has been assumed by Patricia Moss.
"I'm am excited to be a member of the Horizons for Homeless Children team," Moss said. "It is a team that has proven it cares about, and is committed to, the well-being of homeless children across the state."
According to Moss, the purpose of the Playspace Program is to design and build age-appropriate "kid friendly," spaces that include books, games, toys, blocks and art supplies tools that are intended to enhance the verbal, physical and social language skills of children.
With regional Playspace Program offices in Worcester, Lawrence, and New Bedford Moss said there are currently 100 Playspaces in the state that serve over 1,500 homeless children each week.
According to Moss, now that the organization has opened an office in Holyoke, it will continue to build playspaces all across the Pioneer Valley.
She explained that each playspace is supervised by two volunteers, called Playspace Activity Leaders (PALS) which are recruited and trained through the organization.
Since the program began, Moss said that over 6,000 people have volunteered their time, a number that the HHC is hoping to expand upon.
"We really need volunteers," she said
Moss explained that volunteers are asked to give a six month commitment, during which they donate two hours of their time a week to join a staff member in supervising the playspace.
"We try to get in as many volunteers for each shelter as possible," she said.
Volunteers are required to attend a six-hour training session, one of which will take place Sept. 10 at Heritage State Park. The next volunteer training session will take place in the East Longmeadow Public Library on Dec. 6 and 7.
During the training, Moss said that the volunteers are told what it is like to be a homeless child the kinds of experiences homeless children may encounter and the loss and devastation that has shaped their lives.
"It helps the volunteers to understand why [homeless children] may steal, or hoard things, or be overly affectionate," she said.
She explained that being a volunteer can be a very "eye-opening" experience.
"It's a wonderful experience for people who have been given a picture of homelessness being all drunks and junkies, when the majority of homeless people are women and children," Moss said.
She added that she believes it will help to desensitize the community to the kinds of issues that serve as catalysts for homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing and problems with welfare assistance.
According to Moss, the importance of the Playspace Program is that it targets an age group that goes chronically unaddressed as most programs focus on dealing with the problems with homelessness among adolescents and adults.
"I've been in human services for 30 years, and I've never heard of anyone targeting this young group of people," she said. "These young kids just aren't really served as a homeless population."
"The hope is that people will starting paying more attention to this vulnerable population and realize that we've got to do something because one day they're going to grow up, and they're going to get out of life what we put in as a society," she said.
According to Sue Heilman, executive director of Horizons for Homeless Children, the creation of the Playspace Program arose in direct response to the unmet needs of homeless children, especially those younger than school age.
"The problem of homeless children is almost invisible to our day-to-day lives, and these great kids are in danger of falling through the cracks of society," said Heilman, who who attended the ribbon cutting at the Family Place last Thursday. "HHC's Playspaces offers safe havens for homeless children to play and develop, while giving their parents a chance to map out life changes that eventually will help them live on their own."
Heilman said that with the new office in Holyoke, HHC intends to open an estimated 20 playspaces in western Massachusetts, although she said that number varies because shelters are constantly opening and closing.
"We're very excited to have this new office here in western Massachusetts, " she said.
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer can contact the office at (413) 532-0467 or visit the organization's website, www.horizonsinitiative.org.