Horizons for Homeless Children is a lifeline of learning for struggling families
Itzamarie Torres hugged her 4-year-old son Ayden tightly and kissed him goodbye, then watched as he rushed off to play with the other children in a Roxbury classroom.
Torres, 23, later headed to work at a community development organization in Jamaica Plain. In the evening, she would pick up Ayden and his 2-year-old brother Adrian, then take her rambunctious children back to her Dorchester apartment for dinner.
“My days with them, I say, are never-ending,” Torres said. “They have so much energy.”
But she welcomes the routine. A few years ago, she was homeless, living in an East Boston shelter and unsure what was coming next.
At the shelter, Torres was put in touch with Horizons for Homeless Children, a statewide nonprofit that provides spaces for homeless kids to play and learn. The nonprofit is a lifeline for struggling parents like Torres, helping them set goals and find jobs so they can get back on their feet.
“Knowing that there’s somewhere I know [my kids are] safe, and they have food, and I don’t have to worry about them, it’s perfect,” Torres said. “So I can go throughout my day and do what I have to do in order to better ourselves.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Torres grew up in Fall River and moved to Hyde Park when she was 10. She dropped out of high school during her sophomore year, and had her first child a couple of years later. When she got pregnant again, though, her mother wasn’t thrilled.
“We got [into] a little bit of an argument,” Torres said. “That’s when I had to go on my way with my son.”
Couch-surfing was stressful, especially with an infant in tow. Now, though, Torres has a place to live, and can work full time without having to worry about child care.
Horizons for Homeless Children’s Roxbury classroom looks identical to that of any other preschool — young children play with building blocks, tumble around on the carpet, and scream the lyrics to “Old Town Road” at the top of their lungs while jumping up and down with glee.
The difference: All the kids are homeless, or recently were.
Horizons, marking its 30th anniversary this year, stresses continuity — with so much uncertainty in the lives of homeless children, it’s nice to have some semblance of a routine.
It’s a “sense of ‘I’m part of a community. I’m part of something bigger,’ ” said Deanna Dwyer, the nonprofit’s spokeswoman.
The organization has more than 90 play spaces — mini-child-care sites housed within shelters — around the state, as well as three early education centers in Boston where 175 children up to age 6 are served two meals a day and receive preschool education from certificated teachers. Horizons also offers a partnership program that helps parents like Torres find careers, education, and housing.
“We recognize that homelessness is often generational, so if we can get Itzamarie up on her feet, it will make her kids’ prospects much better going forward,” Dwyer said.
In Massachusetts, most homeless families with children are eligible to be placed in a family shelter. A roof over your head might be preferable to sleeping on the street, but Horizons says shelter conditions are not conducive to helping young children learn and develop.
Horizon’s mission is to “provide the means and the opportunity and the oversight to actually have the kind of play experiences that most children have in their house everyday,” said Kate Barrand, the organization’s CEO. “When you’re barely able to survive, you’re not likely to go out and buy books.”
The play spaces are a large part of that vision.
“Outside of play space, these kids have no control over what’s going on in their lives,” said Lynne Gaines, the Boston region’s play space director. Inside, they’re “empowered.”
Unlike traditional schools, Horizon’s education centers operate year-round, filling a summertime void for homeless children whose families can’t afford expensive camps. Jayd Rodrigues, a former teacher who oversees the three centers, said she’s seen first-hand the positive impact early education has on children.
“It’s the most important part of development — the first six years of life,” Rodrigues said.
All of Horizons programs are free for families; the nonprofit is mostly funded through private and corporate donations, Dwyer said, with some money coming from federal Head Start program grants.
Next fall, the organization will consolidate its three education centers into one large headquarters in Roxbury, adding space for 50 more kids to learn and grow.
Four-year-old Ayden won’t be there to see it — he’s getting ready to graduate from the preschool program and head to a nearby Catholic school for kindergarten.
Torres, who’s pursuing her GED, has changes coming, too.
“I never stop thinking, ‘What’s next?’ ” she said. “Because I have to think about two little humans that count on me to make their life easier and better for them.”
With memories of being homeless on her mind, she takes in stray cats, and wants to study to become a veterinarian.
“Seeing the animals, hungry, outside, and everything, that makes me realize how thankful I am to [be] where I am,” Torres said. “I want to give back as much as I can.”