Ramping up the Fun at Horizons

When Jackie, a former science researcher and educator retired, she knew she wanted to spend her newfound free time in a meaningful way. Navigating the world in a wheelchair, she was originally hesitant to pursue volunteer opportunities because she knew that her mobility could be a challenge.

“Sometimes I don’t go places because I don’t want to be in the way.” Jackie admitted.

A tinkerer by nature, she began building beautiful wooden toys. Having raised two rambunctious boys, now in their early thirties, she knew how important playing was for her kids growing up and wanted to provide a means for children to explore their imaginations. Upon seeking out a place to donate her creations, Jackie discovered Horizons for Homeless Children and immediately connected with the organization’s mission of education and healing play.

“I went down to the Roxbury office with a box of wooden toys and upon receiving my donation the staff gave me a wonderful tour. I was really impressed.”

After learning about the Playspace Program, where Horizons builds and staffs playrooms in shelters throughout the state, Jackie’s excitement grew.

“I honestly struggled to figure out what I wanted to do once I retired. After touring Horizons, I called my friends immediately and said ‘I think I’ve found it!’”

After a comprehensive training session, Jackie was assigned to join a Playspace Activity Leader (PAL) team at a busy shelter northwest of Boston. The Playspace Program is so popular with families living there that the shelter hosts a daily lottery for available timeslots to ensure there are enough volunteers to watch over and play with the children.

Though each Horizons’ Playspaces have five distinct play areas featuring standard toys like puppets, blocks, trucks, and crafts, the rooms themselves are limited to what space is available at the shelter. This particular Playspace was built off a waiting room hallway and has a small step in the middle of the space separating the room into two levels.

Easy going by nature, Jackie was content to play with the children on the lower level until a Horizons staff member approached her about installing a ramp.

“I was really surprised!” Jackie confessed. “The staff said they were going to do something about it, and after two or three shifts it was there for me, ready to use. After that, I could easily get to the upper level with the kids.”

Joining the second level opened up a world of possibilities for Jackie’s Playspace experience. “One of the most popular areas is the play kitchen,” she observed of the dramatic play area in the upper corner of the playroom. “I love getting kids to use their imaginations – play cooking and pretending to grocery shop, things like that. The toy cash register is a real favorite for the children!” Jackie constantly recognizes learning opportunities in the kids she plays with. “Doing simple things like asking them to fill a basket with toy fruit or build a tower together with two or three blocks – small things like that really make an impact.”

Consistency is a cornerstone of the Playspace Program to provide children the opportunity to remember and trust the volunteer PALs they play with. Jackie has found comfort in the routine of volunteering and has noticed the difference it makes for the children.

“I’ve seen changes week to week from the kids that show up. We help them learn to share and learn to focus.” Jackie enthused. “Even with the step, one of the toddlers couldn’t walk over it unless he went backwards then one day we watched him achieve it!”

Lynne Gaines, Horizons’ Director of Playspace and Volunteer Services Program, was quick to express the value of Jackie’s contributions as a PAL. “Our PALs are truly the backbone of what we do – without volunteers like Jackie, the program doesn’t exist.”

“To us, Playspace is less about the toys and more about the relationships these volunteers are creating for the children and the consistency they provide by showing up each and every week.” Lynne reflected. “The kids who come to our Playspaces know there are kind, caring adults like Jackie ready to have fun with them, creating positive interactions and engagements in a safe and playful environment that’s designed just for them.”

“And, every PAL brings their own unique interests and capabilities to their role as a volunteer.” Lynne continued. “Jackie is wonderful working with the children served by the shelter, but, whether she knows it or not, she’s also sending a subtle message that everyone is capable no matter what challenges they might experience. That’s something children and families living in shelter can understand.”


When asked if Jackie feels supported by Horizons staff and programs, her answer was a resounding “Yes!”, stating that her fellow PALs have been a supportive team in the Playspace.

“Although I can’t necessarily lift a child when they want to be picked up, there’s always one of the other volunteers nearby to help pop them on my lap.” Jackie explained. “Then there’s one little boy who likes to climb into my lap, and that’s okay too!” she confided with a chuckle.

“The first night I was here, we even had races.” The waiting area connected to this particular Playspace features a play car and some extra space for activities. “A child would get in the car and I’d be in my chair and we’d race from one end of the room to the other! It was a lot of fun.”

Jackie’s Playspace experience has been such an enjoyable and rewarding volunteer commitment that she has gushed about it to her other retired friends as a worthwhile way to spend some time throughout the week. No matter one’s mobility, age, or background, she knows that everyone can help make a difference for a child through the simple act of being a PAL and spending time in a child’s world while they’re living in shelter.

“One of the things I was most worried about was not being a fully functioning member of the team,” Jackie confided, reflecting on her experience as a PAL with a smile. “I’ve never felt that way at Horizons.”

This piece was written by Andrea Drag, a regular contributor to Horizons’ Blog.