Plastic bins overflowing with costumes. A fire engine hat. Fairy wings. A three-story dollhouse and a play kitchen. This brightly painted room is the perfect setting for children to explore and let their imaginations run wild.
So they do.
Every Thursday evening in a space at the shuttered D.C. General Hospital in Southeast, the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project gives kids ages 1 through 12 the chance to be, well, kids. Parents sign their kids in for the two-hour session and then get a bit of downtime, while volunteers plop on the floor to partake in imaginary picnics and help brainstorm what creatures can be made from molding clay.
“We’ve both benefited,” says parent DeLaShawn Horton, whose 2-year-old son, Arthur Hayes IV, already has two books in his hands. “It’s a reward for him. It’s one of those things where I can say, ‘If you don’t do this, you don’t go to playtime.’ Interacting with other children has really helped him. It’s given him a time to play.”
Founded in 2003 by social worker Jamila Larson and lawyer Regina Kline, the project aims to give children in uncertain living situations a sense of stability — and the freedom to play as they choose.
There’s a room for toddlers and another for older kids. On a recent night, volunteer coordinator Ashley Wiegner chats with 6-year-old Rickera Smith, who’s changing baby dolls’ diapers with her sister Makiyah, 2. Across the room, Quantae Cooper, 5, selects a red cape from a pile of dress-up clothes and drapes it across his shoulders.
Hoots and hollers of childish glee echo off the corridors during an impromptu combination of the games Red Light/Green Light and Capture the Flag.
Volunteer Rob Otto stands along a wall and waits until he has three boys’ rapt attention. “One, two, three. Green light!”
The kids race down the hall toward volunteer Roderic Liggens, who tries blocking them: “Red light!”
The trio stops in mid-motion, panting and laughing at one another’s odd poses.
All the volunteers share a desire to help kids in need, but their varying experiences have shaped the reasons they got involved.
For volunteer coordinator Kathleen Fawcett, it was a shooting in her D.C. neighborhood of Mount Vernon. “A 15-year-old kid,” she says. “Shot. It was awful. I was like, ‘I want to make sure no kids in my neighborhood get hurt. I want to give back to kids. I want to make sure they’re okay.’ ”
Liggens, a father of eight himself, says a friend suggested he give it a try. “She said, ‘There’s not a lot of African American males out here as role models,’ ” he says. “I don’t mind being a second dad to some of them. They respond. I love the kids. I love every one of them.
“They’re good kids. I enjoy coming out and seeing them grow.”
How to get involved: E-mail email@example.com or call 202-329-4481. A background check and two-hour training session is required. Volunteers work with kids in two-hour sessions at five locations, including the old D.C. General Hospital’s Emergency Family Hypothermia Shelter, 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE. Thursday 6:30-8:30 p.m. www.playtimeproject.net.