HomeFront’s children’s programs nurture our area’s poorest children individually from birth through the teen years so that they will grow aware of life’s possibilities and on a path to realizing them. No matter the age or the circumstance of the child who comes to HomeFront, each is given respect, loved and, above all, given hope for a bright future—a vision that all-too-often eludes children going through the horror of homelessness. Children from low-income families are just like other children.
They need to get out, spend time with friends and just play. After-school hours and weekends are important times for children to be children, and that’s when our Joy, Hopes & Dreams program takes them away. Some of the kids reside in the Family Preservation Center, but most are alumni and living in their families’ new apartments. Led by the charismatic “Mr. Chris” Marchetti, Joy, Hopes & Dreams provides homework help, cultural enrichment and just plain fun. It is not site-based; using the “Magic School Bus” model, a HomeFront bus collects the kids and connects them to the array of social, cultural and education opportunities that the larger community has to offer. We know how important educational success is to the future of our kids.
So our Educational Success Center involves children residing at the Family Campus with quality after-school tutoring and homework help. Children’s Champion is a unique early-intervention and support-service initiative for homeless children. Each child residing in the Family Preservation Center is assigned a “champion” – a case manager, who will be his or her advocate.
Each July and August, HomeFront operates Camp Mercer, at the Lawrence Community Center. The day campers range from age 5 through 14. Mornings are devoted to academics, taught as creatively as possible, and the afternoons are devoted to fun and relaxation.
Joy, Hopes & Dreams
Joy, Hopes & Dreams offers a stellar lineup of engaging, fun activities to the wonderful school-age youngsters we serve. Sadly, many children from families facing homelessness or severe economic hardship don’t have access to help with schoolwork and tutoring; classes in music and the other arts; team sports; or horizon-expanding outings.
But the Joy, Hopes & Dreams staff and volunteers work hard to make sure they do! The program offers an after-school and weekend schedule that works to meet the educational and emotional needs of the children involved. We understand that academic success is vital to the children’s futures, so tutoring is provided three nights a week. After-school programs are offered almost every day of the week. Volunteers, who frequently become friends and mentors, staff the sessions. Dinner is served, and after the study sessions, the children socialize with each other. We emphasize reading skills and provide a reading specialist.
Children attend art classes on Thursdays and a stage show several times a year, thanks to the Arts Council of Princeton and McCarter Theatre. Almost every weekend, there are educational and recreational activities, such as Christmas parties or trips to the beach, museums, ballgames, the zoo or the State Aquarium. We always provide meals and transportation as needed. “Our kids lead very challenging lives under circumstances in which their parents can’t provide them with what other more-fortunate kids take for granted: patient and encouraging help with their homework; opportunities to broaden their horizons; and time to just let loose and have a blast,” says Rex Mangrum, HomeFront’s director of children’s programs.
Joy, Hopes & Dreams welcomes help from corporations, college and high school students and local families––all of whom open their homes, schools, offices and their hearts to these children, offering them special experiences. “The message we hope kids are getting from places like McCarter Theater and Rider University is: You belong here!’” says Mangrum. Chris Marchetti, generally known as “Mr. Chris,” is the chief of the Joys, Hopes & Dreams crew.
He says, “Our goal every year is to turn my group of kids into an extended family where they feel safe and learn to have each others’ backs. This is an essential element of self-confidence.” And for any young boy or girl who ever wanted to play basketball, HomeFront kids ages 11-15 are eligible for our basketball teams. They are sponsored by Mathematica and coached by Mathematica’s own Dominick Esposito, John Kennedy, Brandon Coffee-Borden and Mason DeCamilis. Now with experienced players, winning seasons are within reach. Win or lose, the kids always have fun while learning valuable lessons about teamwork, hard work and sportsmanship.
Our highly successful Educational Success program at the Family Campus is designed and managed by Melva Moore, a retired teacher. The program provides quality after-school tutoring and homework help, and educational projects. It also trains parents to advocate for their children in the school system. Ms. Moore accompanies moms to school parent/teacher meetings and assists in requesting testing and in interpreting test findings. Evenings are enriched in various ways for school-age children.
For example, on Mondays they are taken to the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing for tutoring; on Tuesdays they learn about nutrition and fitness, and gain some new skills in the teaching kitchen; birthdays are celebrated on Wednesdays; and Thursdays are split between computer time, and vocal and instrumental music sessions with volunteers from Westminster Choir College. Other evenings are devoted to artwork and family movies.
The work of our Children’s Champion program begins the moment a homeless child enters the Family Preservation Center, located at our new Family Campus, when our highly-qualified staff does an initial assessment of each child. This includes the child’s physical well-being and development, language and cognitive skills, behavior and educational background and status.
From these observations, the Children’s Champion staff formulates a case plan for the child, including goals for healthcare, mental health and school/educational success. For most of these children and mothers, it is the first time they have been seen by any sort of social service provider. Finally, these children receive whatever remedial services they need, from dental care to assistance with more serious issues such as profound hearing loss or autism, either through an appropriate HomeFront program or with a community-based provider. Even as we are acting as the child’s advocate, we are training the mothers, through our coaching and by modeling appropriate behavior, to become advocates for their children in future. Also strengthening the mother-child bond, the Children’s Champion program staff conducts numerous on-site parenting classes using an evidence-based curriculum the team has modified to meet the particular needs of this population.
The “work” that the Children’s Champion staff does for and with these homeless children is woven throughout the entire fabric of their days—and very often does not look like “work” at all! Children mired in poverty long simply to be children: happy, secure and with dreams for their tomorrows. Our Children’s Champion program makes sure these children have the sorts of positive, life-enriching experiences—and joy—every child should have. While many of these activities, on-site at the FPC and off-site, show children simply enjoying childhood, these activities are critically needed for their positive development, offering educational remediation, socialization and a sense of acceptance and security to children who have experienced enormous trauma and deprivation.
Atkinson Child Development Center
One of the most important issues many of our clients face is childcare or lack thereof. Childcare affects job and job performance. That’s why HomeFront is committed to providing quality childcare so parents can become the best they can be on the job.
The fully certified Atkinson Child Development Center at our Family Campus is led by a professional with a degree in Early Childhood Education and staffed with professional childcare providers. HomeFront believes that every child deserves the chance to thrive in a loving, caring, nurturing and safe environment. The Childcare Center is open Monday through Friday for children ages six weeks to five years.
Our summer day camp keeps our area’s poorest kids safe and engaged while giving them a summer of social, intellectual and personal enrichment. Summer camp is critical for homeless children. Many homeless families have a working parent, which means that children may be left unattended during the day. Camp Mercer, with an average daily attendance of more than 165, is designed just for them. We provide transportation, along with breakfast and lunch.
Each morning, reading, science and math are taught to prevent a summer-vacation “learning lag.” But because this is camp, the staff gets creative to make learning as fun as possible, often weaving lessons into that summer’s theme. One summer’s academic theme was Greek Mythology, another summer it was World Cup Soccer. The afternoons include activities such as athletics, arts and crafts, gardening and swimming. Wonderful Wednesdays are a highlight; that’s when corporate partners try to outdo each other to show the campers the best time.
Such efforts have included the appearance of a hugely popular bounce-house with water slides. Camp is free to HomeFront kids, with the costs of $150 a week or $600 per session being paid by parents who can afford it, or by generous donors. Additional before- and after-school care is available to allow working parents greater support and flexibility.