Spark at the Shelter

MT-Logo-e1374037157906_-_Copy.png By Gregg McQueen

These walls will be silent no more.

A program that embeds educational installations and programming at family shelters – and enlivens its walls and living spaces – has been expanded by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

Conducted in partnership with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM), the initiative brings learning installations, wall graphics and hands-on education programs into DHS shelter spaces.

Participating families also receive a free CMOM membership.

With new installations at the Hamilton Family Residence in Hamilton Heights and Park Avenue Manor in Brooklyn, and two more on the way, DHS Administrator Joslyn Carter said the expansion dovetails with the city’s focus on making shelters more family-oriented.

“Part of what this does is provide opportunities to learning,” said Carter, pointing out that the administration plans to build 90 new family-oriented shelter facilities. “We want to move away from the one-size-fits-all shelter model, and move towards the community-based, people-focused shelter.”

On April 13, Carter visited Hamilton Family Residence to lead a ribbon cutting for CMOM’s lobby installation there, which is designed to teach kids about healthy eating.

“When children see it, their faces light up, and it stimulates thinking for them, so it’s been great,” Carter said.

By the end of the year, it is expected that there will be CMOM learning hubs at 18 shelters in the DHS system.

Councilmember Mark Levine said that children, who make up about 40 percent of the city’s shelter population, need to feel recognized while residing in a new setting.

“It is so important that children can be enriched and supported, and embraced and validated, when they’re in a shelter,” he remarked.

The Hamilton shelter currently houses 155 homeless families.

Jessica, who resides in the shelter with her four-year-old daughter, said there are now CMOM wall pieces hung on every floor of the shelter.

“It was just empty walls [before], and now they have more interaction going on,” she said.

“In terms of learning, I think it will help the parents as well as the kids. It helps us learn about healthy eating too, so we can support them,” she added.

The expansion of the shelter installations was made possible by $200,000 in grants from Target Corporation and a $75,000 grant from New York Community Trust (NYCT).

Kelly McGarrity, Community Relations Associate for Target, said the company supports programs that boost education, social services and the arts. She said Target employees donate one million volunteer hours each year to local communities.

“[CMOM] is an amazing organization, and we are really proud to not only volunteer there, but to help with the installation of this project,” said McGarrity. “I love seeing that we’re able to help families, parents and children live a healthier lifestyle.”

“When caregivers help young children make healthy choices and develop language skills, they’re making smart investments in promising futures,” noted Natasha Lifton, NYCT Senior Program Officer, in a statement. “Supporting early childhood development for those most in need is a core value at the Trust, which is why we’re thrilled to fund this effort.”

Andrew Ackerman, Executive Director of CMOM, said his museum started its DHS partnership about two decades ago, when homeless teen mothers and their children were welcomed into the museum for a weekly writing, arts and parenting workshop.

He said that CMOM programming at the shelters focuses on early language development as well as health and wellness, including the museum’s unique EatPlayGrow curriculum, which was conceived together with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and includes practical strategies for healthy, affordable living. Additional programs feature hands-on art activities, literacy, music and dance and provide families with information about nutrition, physical activity and the importance of sleep.

“We train shelter staff to help with the programming, and give them all the resources they need,” said Ackerman.

Former shelter resident Orlando Cotto said that he had been pleased to see CMOM’s on-site involvement.
“When I saw the museum here doing healthy activities with the kids, I thought it was great,” he said. “They are opening up their creativity and learning about vegetables. They got something really good going on here.”

Beyond the embedded programming, getting children and families to visit the museum, located at West 83rd Street, is also an important goal, remarked Ackerman.

“When you see people from shelters bringing their kids into the museums on their own, that is a huge step forward for their education,” he said. “It’s going to be something they continue to do to stimulate learning.”

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