Summer preschool offers sense of normalcy for homeless kids

Salem News
By Arianna MacNeill, Staff Writer

Salem News DAVID LE/Staff photo
DAVID LE/Staff photo
Five year-old Allison Huembes, right, looks into a science viewer held by Elijah Gbala, left, while exploring different slides.

BEVERLY — It’s a typical Monday morning for young Osmond Tilton Lopez at the Pathways for Children headquarters on Cabot Street.

Osmond, 4, plays with his friends and shows off his Spider-Man T-shirt, while his older sister, Norma, 5, does the same in a neighboring classroom. It’s an average day for a preschooler, but there’s a major factor in these kids’ lives that sets them apart from other children their age — Osmond, Norma and the other students at Pathways’ Summer Enrichment Preschool are all living in homeless shelters or hotels in Danvers and Peabody.

Thirty-six kids, assigned evenly between two classrooms, are part of this Pathways program. Through a couple of grants — one each from Cummings Foundation and the local chapter of the United Way — the kids spend their day in the classrooms, either playing, participating in educational activities, walking to and playing at the park, or going on field trips every other week.

Pathways, a nonprofit organization based in Gloucester, has run the program since the summer of 2014. That year 22 kids were signed up. A Pathways worker typically goes to each hotel and sets up a table at which families can sign up, according to Holly Curtis, a social worker who spends most of her time with those families.

Life in shelters or hotels can be taxing, Curtis said. “Life happens from the bed.”

In describing living long-term in a hotel, she noted many accommodations for the families don’t come equipped with typical household furniture, such as a kitchen table. Many daily activities — doing homework, eating dinner — happen on this one central piece of furniture. A lot of the rooms also lack proper cooking appliances — microwaves dominate, she said.

In contrast, the students’ experiences over 13 weeks with Pathways — several hours each day — are far different from the confines of living in hotels or shelters, restricted by curfews and lack of space.

Dawn Tilton, Osmond and Norma’s mom, said she’s noticed how happy her children are when they return home each day to their home-based unit in Peabody. The family used to be at the Inn Between, a shelter operated by Citizens for Adequate Housing, but recently moved into the separate unit. It offers similar services to the shelter and the family remains in Inn Between’s caseload, Curtis said, but it’s a step up.

Osmond and Norma really enjoy helping their teacher with tasks, such as setting the table for snacks, said Dawn. “[Osmond] loves it, he’ll come home with art,” she said. “My daughter’s the same way.”

The siblings have fun and they’ve also learned a lot, she noted. “They communicate a lot better, they interact better,” Dawn said, adding that she’s noticed their self-esteem is higher. “They eat healthy.”

According to Danvers data, 163 families were living in the EconoLodge near the Liberty Tree Mall and in the Extended Stay America Boston hotel on Route 1 as of Aug. 11. Of these families, there were 162 children too young to be in grade school. Danvers is one of several Massachusetts communities that has hotels and motels that have contracted with the state on its homeless housing voucher program.

Transportation can also be difficult for these families, Curtis pointed out. Some live in the EconoLodge, and most are at the Extended Stay on Route 1. That means going to a park or taking a day trip can be difficult.

Curtis, the social worker, said the summer program helps offer these kids some semblance of normalcy. “They … learn what it’s like to be a child.”

Christine Fisher, one of the Pathways teachers, said she really notices the excitement among the kids when a field trip is announced. They become excited simply to ride the bus to their destination, she said, in addition to the trip itself.

The first few days can be tough, however.

“A lot of them have never been away from mommy and daddy,” Fisher said, but that trepidation melts away within a few days.

Pathways development officer Ilia Stacy watched the kids play on Monday and spoke highly of other programs the organization offers for young children and their families.

“But this is particularly moving,” she said.

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