Youngsters and their mentors learn from each other
As winter blew in on a cold wind last week, a holiday party for homeless children filled the Wisconsin Place Community Center in Chevy Chase with warmth and good cheer.
The children are living at Greentree Shelter in Bethesda. They shared the festivities Thursday evening with their mentors, local high school students committed to sharing time with them throughout the year.
The Montgomery County Department of Recreation started a partnership with the shelter five years ago to match high school students with children from the shelter to offer them a friend to talk to, play games with and learn social skills from. The Big Buddy, Little Buddy program is sponsored by the Montgomery County Youth Advisory Committee and the departments of recreation and human services.
Jacob Rausch, 15, of Bethesda, a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, became a mentor last year.
"I thought Id get a chance to learn from the mentees and make myself useful," he said. "I love working with kids, especially kids I know I have a chance to help."
Rausch expected to learn how the children coped with homelessness, living in a shelter and moving from place to place. He was surprised to learn that even though his life and theirs were quite different, they were also quite similar, he said.
"I was surprised by the fact that I was able to bond with my mentee last year," Rausch said. "He was a 9-year-old boy. Basically, we were worlds apart but really weren't worlds apart. He was smart and really conscientious."
Rausch and Natalie Parvizian, 16, of Potomac, a junior at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, sat with the children during dinner, occasionally breaking into the chatter to remind one or another to sit properly and eat.
That is one of the things Mary Limehouse, children's services coordinator at Greentree Shelter, likes about the program.
"It's really great for the younger kids especially to work with the teenagers," she said. "They see appropriate behavior modeled and it's good for them."
As dinner ended, the children scattered to other parts of the large room, where Valerie Graham, recreation specialist with the county Department of Recreation and Big Buddy, Little Buddy program coordinator, had tables set up for craft projects.
Dinner seemed almost secondary to the excited children as they left the table to work on arts and crafts projects or just play in the large open space.
At the craft table, there were paper bag puppets to make and treasure chests to decorate with sparkly buttons and stickers.
Brightly colored hula hoops also got a lot of attention as the children first tried spinning them before coming up with different ways to jump through the hoops. Hopping, crawling and squirming, the kids found their own fun ways to get through the hoops.
"These kids are fun and have a lot of energy," he said.
They are normal children and like to play like any other children she babysits for, Parvizian added.
Parvizian became a buddy because she, too, enjoys working with children.
"I was curious about seeing the environment and how it affects them," she said. "I expected something, like they knew more about what was going on in their lives, [and] would be more sad. I haven't seen those things."
Limehouse agrees that there are no stereotypes to homelessness.
"There is no face on homelessness, especially with kids," she said. "You can't categorize it, it can hit anybody."
Last year the National Center for Children and Families, which runs the shelter, presented the program its 2008 Youth Leader of the Year award.
Limehouse said they usually give the award to an individual, but because the buddy program did an outstanding job, the center gave it to the overall program last year.
"They really were committed to the agency and the shelter overall," she said. "I can't explain the overall impact they had. The consistency is key with kids ... it provides stability in unstable times."
To become a mentor, students must attend school in the county and commit to spending three hours a week at the Greentree Shelter. They must also go through a rigorous interview and training process.
"I was thoroughly vetted," Rausch said, adding he hopes to stay in the program all four years of high school because he likes to help the children with their homework and feels he can teach them manners and social skills.
"They are no different from a child living outside a shelter, they are kids in an impossible situation and they need guidance and encouragement just like any kid," Rausch said.