DANVERS — The cool spray of the fire hose soaked youngsters in the noon sun at the annual Fireman’s Muster, one of the hottest events of summer at Endicott Park.
Hundreds of kids from the town’s playgrounds and recreation programs descended on the park’s wide, green fields for a day of old-fashioned firefighting fun.
“We’re going to get, in the end, soaking, soaking wet,” said 10-year-old Isabel, dripping wet in a bright yellow T-shirt with “Sunshine Club” printed on the back.
The finale featured kids and counselors frolicking in a giant pile of sudsy fire foam, the ’50s hit “Splish Splash” blaring over the public address system.
“You look good in a beard,” said Tereza, 12, giggling as she lathered up the face of Chris Roy, director of Project Sunshine.
“You think so?” said Roy, breaking into a smile.
Project Sunshine, a free summer recreation program for homeless kids living in Danvers hotels, has become its own shining star. Over the past two summers, the program has received a statewide honor, attracted nearly $40,000 in private funding, and won the hearts and hands of volunteers from Danvers to Marblehead to Brockton.
“It’s a communitywide effort, with a tremendous outpouring of volunteerism,” said Town Manager Wayne Marquis. “I think people feel proud that their town cares enough to reach out to our residents who are in need. You can count me in that group.”
In January, the Massachusetts Municipal Association gave Project Sunshine an Innovation Award, honoring the town for a creative response to a local issue. “We had families with young children living on the highway in hotels,” Marquis said. “Literally, there were kids playing out in parking lots on Route 1. That was not something that made any sense from my perspective.”
When the state’s 2,000 shelter beds are full, homeless families are placed in hotels. In Danvers, 157 families were living in hotels as of last Tuesday. With affordable housing in short supply, many families end up staying for months, cramped into one room, with only a refrigerator and microwave to prepare food.
And, hardest of all for kids, there is often no safe place to play.
“There are only roads and stores around us,” said Jose, 14, who moved from Lowell recently with his parents and sister. “The closest park is probably 2 or 3 miles away, and you need a car to get there.”
Project Sunshine aims to give Jose and other homeless kids a fit and healthy summer. Senior citizens volunteer each day to prepare breakfast and lunch, with food donated by the Danvers Community Council, a nonprofit that runs the town’s food pantry.
The town of Marblehead invites Project Sunshine participants to swim at Devereux Beach every Monday.
“I feel like it’s everybody’s responsibility to help these kids, not just Danvers’,” said Betsy Ganglani of Marblehead, who garnered contributions from friends and fellow members of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in her town to support the beach day.
Project Sunshine, which costs about $30,000, relies heavily on private contributions. The program last year was funded largely by two $10,000 grants from Eastern Bank and North Shore Bank. The money covers the salary of three staff members assigned to the program, plus transportation and other costs, such as buying yellow Sunshine Club T-shirts for the kids.
Each bank this summer donated $5,000. The town has also applied to other bank foundations for support. Individual donations range from $20 to $1,000. In May, the Satch Kerans Band raised $8,000 in a concert that was the first-ever grass-roots fund-raiser for Project Sunshine.
“With this economy, situations like this are occurring on the North Shore and beyond,” said Tom “Satch” Kerans, a Rockport resident who grew up in Danvers. “It doesn’t take much for people to find themselves homeless . . . It’s important for people in this situation to know that others care.”
A yellow school bus picks up kids weekdays at 8 a.m. at their hotel. They head to Smith School, where the program is based, for a breakfast of cereal, yogurt, bagels, and other choices. On most days, they take a field trip or participate in townwide recreation events, such as the Fireman’s Muster. Many kids wear their Sunshine Club T-shirts.
“We can’t solve their housing problems,” said David Mountain, the town’s recreation director. “But when they are with us, they can be outside, making new friends, seeing new things.”
Field trips are usually planned for spots with free admission, such as state parks and properties run by the Trustees of Reservations. The trustees recently invited Project Sunshine for a hike at Castle Hill in Ipswich, followed by lunch at the snack bar at Crane Beach.
School on Wheels of Massachusetts, a nonprofit based in Brockton that collects school supplies for homeless kids, again plans to donate backpacks, stuffed with school supplies, for each youngster when the recreation program ends Aug. 17.
Project Sunshine sometimes does have to spend money on field trips, such as for a tour of Fenway Park or to a New England Patriots practice at Gillette Stadium. The group hopes to visit each again this summer. “We have to keep an eye on our costs,” said Roy, who is also a physical education teacher at Smith School. “But we also want the kids to have a broad experience.”
Some kids said summer would be long and hard without Project Sunshine.
“It’s way better than staying home all day,” said Mohamed, 13 , who moved from Revere to a hotel a few months ago. “There are so many things we do here.”
“If we didn’t come here, we’d have to be out in the parking lot, playing chase or kickball,” said Ania, 12. “Here, we get to go to the beach every Monday.”
Visits to Devereux Beach started last summer, after Ganglani brought Project Sunshine to the attention of her husband, Sam, who then was a member of the town’s Recreation Commission. “I thought, ‘What can our little town do for these kids?’ ’’ Betsy said. “I said if they could come to the beach, I would be willing to do the lunch on a weekly basis.”
Her friends, neighbors, and fellow church members donated money to buy beach towels, toys, and sunscreen. Church members volunteered to make lunch and snacks for the kids and counselors. Shubie’s, a local market, donates snacks for the bus ride home.
“The kids love the beach towels and toys,” said Ganglani. “They appreciate everything so much.”
Volunteers at the Danvers Senior Center spend afternoons preparing breakfast and lunches, packing hundreds of water bottles, juice boxes, and snacks.
“It’s very time-consuming to feed 40 kids every day,” said Pam Parkinson, the senior center’s director. “A lot of time goes into buying and preparing the food, but our seniors love to do it for the kids.”
Lunch is usually a tuna, turkey, or ham sandwich, with a side of pasta salad and carrot sticks. “We try to use as many fresh vegetables as we can,” Parkinson said. “We know they don’t have the ability to prepare fresh vegetables in a hotel room.”
“We put a lot of stuff in the refrigerator,” Ania said. “We can make rice, too.”
But a shiny plum, carrot sticks, and a turkey roll-up hits the spot, too.
“We have Oodles of Noodles, SpaghettiOs, and rice and beans a lot,” said Precious, 11, who moved recently from Haverhill with her mother and two brothers. “Who wants to eat microwave food 24/7?”
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Donations to Project Sunshine can be made by check, payable either to the Town of Danvers, or for a tax-deductible contribution, to the Danvers Community Council. Project Sunshine should be written in the memo line. Send checks to David Mountain, Recreation Director, Danvers Town Hall, 1 Sylvan St., Danvers, MA 01923. Any money left over from the summer program may be used to enroll homeless kids in the Fun Club, an afterschool program run by the Recreation Department.