HomeFront’s children’s programs nurture our area’s children that are impacted by poverty from birth through the teen years. No matter the age or the circumstance of the child who comes to HomeFront, each is given respect, love, and given hope for a bright future.
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.
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 (JHD) offers a stellar lineup of engaging, fun activities to the wonderful school-age youngsters we serve. Unfortunately, many children from families facing homelessness or severe economic hardship don’t always have the means or proper access to help with schoolwork, computer classes, 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 all the children involved. Understanding that academic success is vital to the children’s futures, tutoring is provided three nights a week along with a Computer Coding class where homework, computers, and other academic tasks are all on the regular agenda. Volunteers, who frequently become friends and mentors, help JHD staff with almost all of the sessions. Dinner is served, and after the study sessions, the children socialize with each other and the tutors, have snack, and often play games together.
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. 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. Chris Marchetti, generally known as “Mr. Chris,” is the Director of the Joys, Hopes & Dreams team. 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.”
The work of our Children’s Champion program begins the moment a child enters the Family Preservation Center, located at our Ewing 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 parents, 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 parents, through our coaching and by modeling appropriate behavior, to become advocates for their children in future. Also strengthening the parent – 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 children is woven throughout the entire fabric of their days—and very often does not look like “work” at all! Children impacted by 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 Family Preservation Center 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 significant trauma.
In addition to our Children’s Champion program, we also host a highly successful Educational Success program at the Family Campus. The program provides quality after-school tutoring and homework help, and educational projects on-site. It also trains parents to advocate for their children in the school system.
Atkinson Child Development Center
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.
Camp Mercer is HomeFront’s eight-week day camp that specializes in working with children ages 5-15 who are experiencing housing instability, keeping them safe and engaged while giving them a summer of social, intellectual and personal enrichment. Providing an enriching summer camp is critical, as many of the families we serve have a working parent, which means that children may be left unattended during the day. Camp Mercer, with an average daily attendance of just under 100, 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.
Over the past few years, due to the pandemic and a few other circumstances, Camp Mercer has organically grown into a camp where children with behavioral barriers can feel like they belong and thrive. Though important to note that every camper’s situation is different, Camp Mercer is designed to be a place for children who are struggling emotionally and behaviorally due to housing instability, limited social experiences, and the other barriers that often come with living in poverty.
At Camp Mercer, we work with children experiencing these types of barriers by creating a nurturing, safe, trauma-informed environment. We hire great staff who complete intense week-long training to learn the best practices for working with children experiencing housing instability. Most importantly, everyone involved with Camp Mercer, from our Director to our volunteers, are all there because they believe in our mission, deeply care about each child, and are excited and committed to spend the summer getting to know the amazing children at Camp Mercer.
Camp is free to HomeFront kids, so we can make sure that each child has the chance at a summer of fun! To sponsor a child for summer camp, please click here.