Annually, more than 10,000 families and 21,000 children become homeless in Massachusetts. Approximately 1,400 of these families are living in family shelters or battered women’s shelters statewide. The children living in these shelters frequently do not have adequate opportunities for the educational play that is so vital to their growth and development.
The Horizons Initiative runs several program that provide children living in shelters in Boston and the surrounding communities with the nurturing and stimulation that all children need to learn and grow. The Horizons Initiative Community Children’s Centers are full-time childcare centers specifically for homeless children and their families. Their Volunteer Program recruits, trains and places volunteer “Playspace Activity Leaders” (PALs) to play and interact with homeless children at the Community Children’s Center, family shelters and bettered women’s shelters.
In November of 1999, Elizabeth Williams became a volunteer PAL. Since then, she has worked directly with homeless children through The Horizons Initiative programs. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of youth who were in transition by bringing them some happiness, hope and stability. Williams completed a 6-hour training on homelessness, child development and the special needs of homeless children. Since then, she has been a consistent presence for at least two hours each week in the preschool classroom at the Community Children’s Center in Dorchester.
William’s volunteer service has made a lasting impact on the homeless children enrolled at the Center, their teachers and the organization as a whole. Since the first years in a child’s life are critical for self-esteem, health and intellectual development, she is nurturing the preschoolers’ ability to learn, grow and thrive. Williams promotes their development by giving them individualized attention and leading them in age-appropriate activities. The staff that supervises Williams says she is sensitive to the needs of the children in the classroom and is also very skilled at leading them in activities that stimulate the development of their cognitive, language, motor and social skills. They look forward to her visits, and she is always welcomed with huge hugs and squeals of delights from the children.
Many of the children Williams works with have experienced tremendous loss or major traumas in their young lives. The stability that she provides through her consistent presence helps them develop a sense of security and trust in others and fosters feelings of positive self-worth. Even though volunteers are asked to give a commitment of six months, Williams has continued past the two-year mark.
Williams also provides much-needed support to the teachers at the Center by offering additional one-on-one care to the children. One of the preschool teachers states Williams constantly outperforms their expectations because she goes the extra mile to help both the children and the teachers. In addition to volunteering in the classroom, Williams has been an enthusiastic ambassador for The Horizons Initiative. She shares her volunteer experiences at trainings for prospective volunteers. She has also been a member of the PAL Activity Council, a volunteer leadership committee that provides training and resources to fellow volunteers.