Helping Children Heal Through Play Two Hours at a Time
Playspace Activity Leader, Robin Hauck, arrives at the shelter and rings the bell, then waits for the buzzer to sound and the door to unlock. She has done this every Wednesday night for over three years. The kids living in the shelter are waiting for that buzzer, too. “Sometimes they come to the top of the stairs and wait for us,” Robin said. “There’s no greater happiness than to see their excited faces when we get buzzed in!” She says hello to the shelter staff before walking hand in hand with the kids to the Playspace.
“I have a friend who had been in and out of the shelter system with two children and I saw her really go through it,” Robin said. “I learned a lot from her about how hard it can be as a mom to live in a shelter and experience homelessness.” Robin found Horizons and knew she wanted to get involved. She feels that giving back to her community is an important use of her time. “I want to do whatever I can in a local way to take a little pressure off,” she said. “I would go [to the Playspace] every day if I could, I love it. I love being there, I love the kids, I love the moms.”
Children carry what happens to them in these early years for the rest of their lives and for kids who live in shelter, time in a Horizons Playspace is more than just a chance to play games or paint or pretend to bake a cake in the tiny wooden kitchen. It is a chance to heal through play, to process some of the more challenging moments of their lives in a trauma-informed space, to be loud – like kids should be, and feel a sense of consistency and normalcy.
“Playspace is meant to be a break [for parents as well] and we take that really seriously,” Robin said. “They are doing everything they can to take the best care [of their families]. They care about their kids so much.” Playspace volunteers provide parents time to work, clean, rest or plan in the short amount of time they spend at the shelter. Offering a space where parents know their kids are safe and well cared for gives them the opportunity to do what needs to be done that evening, knowing their child is in competent and loving hands.
Pictured left to right Alisa Neely, Robin Hauck, Jillian Serrano
Passionate volunteers like Robin are crucial to Horizons’ Playspace program. Each volunteer is prepared with trauma-informed training to make sure they can make a positive impact on the children they serve. “The experience of becoming homeless itself is traumatic for a child and so we are extremely conscientious about what the kids are dealing with on a minute-to-minute basis,” Robin says. Because of Robin’s vigilance and understanding, she gives the children who come to Playspace an opportunity to express and regulate their emotions with the hope that this time together will minimize the impact of the trauma they’ve experienced.
“This whole idea of trauma informed care that Horizons uses to design spaces and programming also applies to how we operate in the shelter in a Playspace,” Robin says. “I have learned if you can be willing to let the kids lead and take their signals and cues, lead with love, and let them work things out if they need to, you can have the best result. You can grow a lot of trust between you and the children.”
Robin says PALS often see the effect they have on the kids who come to their Playspace. Even infants who don’t have words brighten up when they see Robin and her fellow PALs, knowing it is time to play and have some fun. “They reach for us, and smile. We’re familiar faces to them, which makes us as volunteers feel good too.”
As the time in Playspace starts to wind down around 7:30 p.m., Robin and the other volunteers start to quiet things down. They turn off some of the lights and read a book or encourage the kids to color or do a puzzle to wind down in preparation for their moms’ return.
Horizons is always looking for volunteers to staff playrooms in shelters across the entire state of Massachusetts. The program has been slowly and safely returning to pre-covid operations but there are many shelters where Playspaces remain closed because of a lack of volunteers.
“We want to give these kids everything we can, we want Horizons to be proud of us, we want to support families who are struggling, and we want more people to do it,” Robin said. “The program and my experience as a part of it has been one of the best things in my life.”
To learn more about volunteering as a Playspace Activity Leader (PAL) please visit: https://horizonschildren.org/programs/playspace/