By the time I was eight years old, I was a seasoned combat veteran of instability. While my future classmates had structured, jam-packed, and predictable college-ready schedules, I spent those years – segmented into hours and minutes, sunrise and sunset – outside of school, sleeping and eating outdoors, identifying safe places to sit and sleep to avoid being policed for existing-while-homeless, as well as trying to predict my mom’s unpredictable, unmedicated-by-Medicaid moods. And eyeing discarded magazines that might help me escape my terrifying world for a little while, escaping into one of the selected articles even though the shelter was so, so loud.
I tried to listen to the teachers who were preparing me for the school-to-prison-pipeline through no-excuses military drills, trying to synchronize my hands with those of the other tiny hands slapping on their hips. But it was so hard to stand still, and I was so bored and angry. So angry I consistently brought credence to their fear of the black child by physically hurting others, scratching and biting, the way the world hurt me.
My free play was snatched in snippets throughout the day under the watchful gaze of my well-meaning mom and familiar or friendly (never both) library staff. Even though I would be one of the vanishingly few – blink twice and you miss it – college graduates, from Harvard no less, due to being seen by some as more worthy than others, I still felt less somehow. I still felt that I was invisible at Harvard just as I had been on the sidewalk. I still felt the need to justify my existence. I escaped homelessness, but the wounds to my psyche risked infection.
The only thing unusual about my plight is my escape from it, and my unusual, yet quite mundane, success. I own a stupidly expensive phone that is attached to my hand. I can pay and always pay my rent on time. I have a job, several awards, and I worry about dumb things the way a 29-year-old should, like whether to prioritize putting away savings or checking out this amazing sale, and you know I need new clothes for work!
What’s not unusual, however? The Playtime Project’s impact on children. I never knew how raw my healed wounds still were until I joined Playtime as a volunteer. The anger of my youth for things I didn’t have was still with me; I didn’t have summer camp, or enrichment, or friends, or any of the things that overscheduled children have these days. I didn’t have anyone who truly treated me as a human being, consistently, until college.
All this anger I didn’t even know I had melted away when I played with a child. Children could decide whether to play with me or not. Children could choose where to go. Children who “misbehaved” were re-directed – nobody was afraid of these children! Children blossomed right before my eyes, and they let out their feelings in a way I never thought was possible, learning important social skills that I learned more haphazardly and embarrassingly (people don’t really respond well to using toilet seat covers for napkins). Children transformed right before my eyes in months, not decades. My study of sociology, psychology, and my personal and academic study of trauma convinces me that no matter what these children face, they’ll have a much better chance than I had any right to given how this world works.
I’m an ordinary person with an extraordinary story. But my story doesn’t have to be extraordinary. You have the opportunity to give children what I did not have: self-determination, room to be a child, the chance to realize and be acknowledged as an actual human being. You’re so lucky, or blessed (take your pick) because you get to do something stupidly easy to create more eloquent adults like me. Or, more important, well adjusted, happy adults.
I’ve never encountered an organization that so simply improves the lives of children in a way that sees them as more than a collection of statistics with x and y resource needs. I’ve never encountered an organization that has been so healing to me, without even trying. I’ve saved you 29 years of life experience and several months of volunteer experience to help you realize that yes, you should give all your money to Playtime. Or at least a little bit more than you were planning to give. Because I guarantee you, the opportunity to help children experience the full scope of their humanity will never elsewhere be as simple as providing paper (or plastic, or wire, will, endowment, we’re not picky) to give the gift of play.