Alec Van Dyke put the finishing touches on the play areas recently opened at the Best Western Hotel that is now serving as a homeless shelter on Elm Street in Concord.
He loaded up the pint-sized shelves with age-appropriate toys for the nearly 130 children that moved to the hotel last month when the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development closed a homeless shelter at Devens..
“These children are sharing their lives with us,” said Van Dyke, a Playspace designer with Horizons for Homeless Children, an agency working with Making Opportunity Count (MOC) to serve the new inhabitants of the hotel.
“There is no curriculum, no planned activities, just play,” he said with a smile.
At the ribbon-cutting for the play area, Colby O’Brien, senior director of programming at MOC said he is pleased with the support he’s seen from the Concord community.
“The community has accepted us,” he said. “This is what is making a difference for these children.”
Horizons CEO Kate Barrand said half the children are under age 5, facing a tremendous upheaval in their short lives.
“We are giving kids the opportunity to do what is important and that is play, unstructured play,” she said. “We thank the Concord community for that.”
“Play is the work of childhood,” said Horizons Playspace Director Lynne Gaines, adding that the Massachusetts shelter system is not designed for children.
State Sen. Mike Barrett hailed the playspace, acknowledging that the state “has not done that well” finding permanent housing for the now-homeless. “Massachusetts needs a pro-immigration policy.”
Rep. Simon Cataldo noted the “difficult work” of helping resettle the families at the hotel and praised MOC for its open and honest approach.
“I’m very proud of Concord,” said Cataldo. “The community showed it is going to step up.”
Cataldo said reimbursement for transportation costs for school children is currently in the state budget, but the process is not final.
Gail Burr, Concord artist and former early childhood educator, said she is making connections with the moms at the shelter. She and other volunteers created over 100 small canvases painted with colorful hearts that will be installed along the walls of the new Playspace. Burr is one of approximately 30 volunteers to work at the site, and more are needed for a morning or afterschool shift.
Barrand said volunteers can be any age and needn’t have special training. They should be prepared to sign up for six months to work in two-hour shifts.
O’Brien said 28 families are at the Best Western long-term, while 50-60 families are staying temporarily, usually a week. On arrival, he said residents fill out a sheet with their needs such as clothing and personal care items that are stored in a large closet at the hotel. He said MOC will soon have a van that can bus residents into Concord and elsewhere.
If there is an item that he doesn’t have on hand, “the staff goes shopping.”