Three years ago, Somerville resident Amy Gardner was riding the T when she saw an advertisement. It depicted a cute kid, and it asked, to paraphrase, if such a child could sell you tires, could she also sell you on the chance to spend a few hours enriching her life?
The advertisement spoke to Gardner, and "I just decided it was time to start impacting somebody's life," she said.
Since then, Gardner has been volunteering with Horizons for Homeless Children, spending a few hours each week as a playspace activity leader, or PAL, and she recently won the organization's PAL of the Year Award for her efforts.
Gardner works at a family shelter in Somerville, where she oversees playtime for the children of five families who live there. She's one of 1500 playtime activity leaders in the state who do such work with the organization each week.
"I just let the kids run for 10 minutes" at the beginning of their playtime, she said. "It's really their only chance to do something wild."
Unlike most children, those who live in a homeless shelter don't have their own room or play area, so it's important they get the opportunity to play. Caitlin Doran, who works at Horizons for Homeless Children, said the organization has 150 playspaces in Massachusetts and works with 2400 kids every week. Volunteers commit to working at least two hours a week for six months.
Gardner said that, after letting them run around for 10 minutes, the kids in her shelter usually settle down to more productive types of play, adding, "it's so good to be able to give these kids the opportunity to play and discover."
Despite the possible challenges of working with homeless children, Gardner said, "Generally, the kids are in there for fun. Generally we don't run into a lot of issues."
Inevitably, she said, her time at the shelter is the "highlight of my week."