When Covid-19 struck Philadelphia more than 800 families found themselves in emergency or transitional housing as they were unable to secure permanent shelter. Pennsylvania’s statewide “stay at home” order was challenging for almost everyone. But for families who didn’t have their own homes to stay in, the impacts of quarantine could be detrimental. Families living in shelters were required to stay in their rooms — spaces that were confined and often unfamiliar, with few if any resources to keep young children active, engaged, and learning. For the 350+ children ages birth to five in shelters, this type of isolation could have lasting negative developmental impacts.
Since 1972, People’s Emergency Center (PEC), an organization in West Philadelphia that supports families, children, and youth experiencing homelessness, has been committed to ensuring that unstable housing doesn’t have to impact a child’s positive development.
Young children living in shelters are often already behind their classmates when they enter school because they’ve had limited access to high-quality early childhood education, and few shelters are designed for young children. Similarly, many early childcare centers are ill-equipped to meet the distinct needs of children and families experiencing homelessness.
PEC’s Building Early Links for Learning (BELL) program creates bridges between shelters and early childhood education centers, plus support for providers on each side of that bridge, so that young children living in shelters can receive quality care and education at the most critical developmental period of their lives. This carefully developed relationship between shelters and early childcare centers was broken when the pandemic struck and the early childcare centers that PEC had been working with received mandates to close. As families in shelters were forced to self-quarantine in small rooms, they not only lost access to early childhood education, but also to common areas in shelters typically available for children to play. Absorbed in their own traumas and cut off from resources, many families were unable to respond to their children’s needs in ways that would support positive development. This type of isolation and a lack of family engagement can be detrimental to the development of the neural connections that support a child’s social, emotional and communication skills later in life.
Observing these consequences of quarantine, PEC’s Early Childhood Education Specialist, Dawn Nock, mobilized her team to make sure that families with young children could continue to keep their kids engaged, healthy, and learning. She spearheaded a partnership with Lakeshore, a company that creates educational materials for classrooms, to design custom, age-appropriate kits to help meet the social and emotional needs of children and their families quarantining in shelters. Reinvestment Fund provided emergency funding through its Philadelphia Emergency Fund for Stabilization of Early Education program, and the first 385 kits arrived in Philadelphia in July, bringing joy and excitement to children waiting out the pandemic.
“It was really important for us to be able to support families and children in this highly vulnerable situation,” shared Bevin Parker-Cerkez, Managing Director, Program Services & Senior Director of Early Childhood Education at Reinvestment Fund. “For families residing in shelters, a range of challenges from limited internet access to insufficient technology devices mean many of the workarounds to support high quality learning activities are out of reach. These individualized kits will help the children continue to learn as we get through these difficult times.”
According to Ms. Nock, “Each kit is also trauma-informed and includes items to support a child’s social emotional development.” Activity sheets created by PEC staff offer families ideas for ways to play together, recognizing that play can reduce stress and help people get through difficult times.
Not wanting to overwhelm staff, PEC’s early childhood specialists took into account the structures and capacity of each shelter when designing the kits. They made sure that the kits arrived assembled and labeled by age groups for ease of distribution. Staff members at each shelter just had to deliver them to a family’s door.
Families have found relief and joy in these kits. They bring brief moments of normalcy amidst displacement and trauma. Many older siblings have taken on the role of “teacher” — conducting activities with their younger brothers and sisters. Many parents feel like they can finally breathe and release long-held tension — even temporarily— as their young children have the chance to learn and grow with joy and safety. The COVID pandemic has changed human connection in many ways, with some of the greatest impacts on children under 5 years old. In Philadelphia, PEC worked quickly and effectively to ensure that these changes weren’t damaging— ensuring that children in shelters can stay active, engaged, and learning so that they will be ready for whatever opportunities their future holds.