The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (HCPP) was founded in 2003 by a coalition of concerned community members, led by social worker and child advocate Jamila Larson, and lawyer Regina “Gina” Kline.
After discovering there were 20 children living a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol in the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV) shelter – one of the largest in the country – Jamila took a tour but was not prepared for what she saw: rows of metal bunk beds, sheets for doors, rat holes, no bathroom soaps, and not a single toy in sight.
Half-dressed children languished in the hallways, while adults sat slumped in a smoky TV lounge with no screens in the windows. A Washington City Paper article reported that a child discovered a dead woman’s body in the bathroom; she died of whooping cough.
Jamila and Gina rallied friends and recruited volunteers to establish a playroom with weekly activities, snacks, and supplies. Each week, as volunteers arrived, an announcement was made that the volunteers had arrived and children immediately flooded the playroom for two hours of play.
Afterward, parents looked visibly refreshed from a rare break to meet with their caseworker, do laundry, cook dinner, or take a shower in peace. Volunteers found meaning in helping local children and secretly enjoyed an excuse to open a can of play-doh, play a board game, or build a block tower. Laughter, music, and the busy sounds of play filled the hallways of the notorious shelter and “Playtime” was born.
Volunteers soon learned that the vast majority of family shelters had no programs or services for children despite the myriad risk factors associated with homelessness. As more and more families with children became homeless, most shelters could not adapt fast enough to accommodate their special needs. Between 2004-2005, families were moved from CCNV and sent to DC Village on the outskirts of town, so Playtime moved there and applied for 501(c)3 status with the help of volunteers who were law students.
As shelters came and went, Playtime followed the children, starting play programs in the grittiest of environments with only volunteer labor and virtually no budget. Betsy Harbison, JooYeun Chang, Megan Newman, Kate Chambers, Emily Benfer, and Daniel Lawson were among Playtime’s first volunteer leaders. Playtime’s efforts gained the attention of better-run family shelters who approached them to start children’s programs in their facilities. The Playtime Project continued to run as an all-volunteer organization while expanding to Community of Hope’s Hope Apartments and Salvation Army’s Turning Point Center at the request of the programs. When DC Village closed, Playtime moved to Northwest Church Family Network (NCFN), which had a playroom but had lost funding for a children’s program.
2009. Hired its first regular staff members: a full-time executive director and part-time program associate, and applied for grants to build on individual donations that made their founding and early growth possible. Playtime expanded to D.C. General Emergency Family Hypothermia Shelter and Park Road Emergency Family Shelter.
2010. Phased out operations at Hope Apartments and moved to the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH)’s new Cornerstone Building, a new transitional housing program for domestic violence survivors and their children. Social work interns initiated a parent-resource help desk at DC General to deepen Playtime’s impact for families.
2011. Established a weekly Teen Program at DC General, along with monthly field trips, and began piloting a play-based curriculum to provide volunteers with more tools for leading educational and therapeutic activities.
2012. Moved back across the river when NCFN closed for renovations, bringing play programs to the newly opened Griffin House, operated by So Others Might Eat, and created a new playroom at Valley Place in Anacostia. Part-time Site Coordinators were hired to manage programs and supervise volunteers, to increase the quality of the programs.
2014. Reestablished a partnership with Community of Hope Apartments, and began offering parenting classes at DC General that provide an evidence-based curriculum giving parents the opportunity to learn practical parenting skills. Also led a public push to build a state-of-the-art playground outside DC General, which was completed in October.
2015. Renovated the former waiting room of DC General, giving teens and preteens a dedicated bright and fun space of their own to play, connect with friends, and study.
2016. Hired its first Volunteer Coordinator, recognizing the critical component of volunteers to the model (valued at over half a million dollars each year).
2017: Hope Apartments and New Beginning sites became Playtime “affiliate partners” run by volunteer leaders. Playtime expands to the Quality Inn motel on New York Ave.
The Playtime Project continues to grow steadily in hiring the staff needed to meet the mission while still maintaining its volunteer roots. We honor the thousands of volunteers and donors who are committed to ensuring that homelessness does not get in the way of a happy and healthy childhood. Thank you for helping us write our story.
Fact – The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless
DC Public Schools reports that there are 2,453 school-aged children experiencing homelessness in the District. Advocates estimate that the number of all children experiencing homelessness, including babies and young children who have not yet entered school, is closer to 5,000.