February 21, 2020

I work at Housing Up, a non-profit affordable housing developer that provides both housing and case management services to over 800 families at risk of or recovering from homelessness in Washington, DC. At 6 of our affordable housing locations we provide a variety of nightly programs that families living in these buildings participate in. I have a dual responsibility of designing those programs and managing volunteers to help run them.

I got an email from a new volunteer who felt like nothing went the way she had expected. Suzanne (not her real name), a well-educated, thoughtful, energetic, woman in her early 50’s, left her first night attending homework helper with frustration. What she expected to be a “classroom” like setting was a lot less structured, and she didn’t receive much gratitude from the kids for simply showing up. I realized that Suzanne’s expectations, and the reality of the situation she was volunteering in, were far apart.

Providing meaningful youth enrichment programs to children in families recovering from an episode of homelessness requires taking into account the many complexities of their life experiences. For many Housing Up residents, stable housing has allowed children to become familiar with a structured routine for the first time in their lives. All too often “routine” previously revolved around disappointment, moving from shelter to shelter, constantly changing schools, and the trauma of not having a place to call home. Homework helper was designed to offer a safe space for children after school while building a positive experience around regularly completing homework. It is not supposed to be a free for all, but it’s not SAT prep either.

I had a conversation about this with Suzanne after her email, and with a new framework in mind, she reaffirmed her commitment by pledging to attend every Monday. The regularity of coming every week created trust with the children. Many of the kids in homework helper had trouble pronouncing Suzanne’s name, often referring to her as “Shazam”. Instead of correcting them, she ran with it. Not only did kids think this was funny, but they began to appreciate her attendance more each week.

Now every Monday kids look forward to seeing “Shazam,” listen to her instruction, and make significant progress on their school work. Shaping Suzanne’s understanding of the context homework helper was designed around helped better frame her expectations. This has enabled her to foster greater bonds with the children, which has made a meaningful impact on both the children’s lives and the success of the program.

What I’ve learned about the volunteers who come to work with Housing Up families is that they often do not initially take into account the intricacies involved with recovering from homelessness. Being able to convey a framework for insight into the lives of our families and how we design programming for them has been crucial in shaping volunteer expectations. By doing so, volunteers discover new approaches and strategies to improve their own experience, which in turn, improves the overall success of our programs.


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