Girl Scouts’ playroom project provides respite for moms, kids alike

Kathy Routliffe
kroutliffe@pioneerlocal.com | @pioneer_kathy
Aug. 4 1:30 p.m.

WORKING FOR PLAY

WHAT: Playroom renovation

FOR: New Life shelter

BY: Wilmette Girl Scout Troop 41302

When you’re a mother living in a homeless shelter, you can’t tell your children to go out and play. You don’t have the luxury of sending them to their room, or the comfort of knowing they have a book to read and somewhere to read it. There’s no safe place to color a picture, or build a Lego castle.

You and your children have a shelter bed, and perhaps the hope of starting life anew – but while you fight that battle, they’re tired and bewildered, with space and time to be children at a premium. And because they’re by your side constantly, you can’t relax either. That’s why the children’s playroom at the New Life Interim Housing shelter in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood is such a blessing, resident and playroom volunteer Angela Curtis said last week.

“When my daughter’s here, not only do I know she’s safe, but she’s got constructive ways to play. She’s not just outside where it’s dangerous,” Curtis said July 30, as she watched a handful of happy kids playing together, painting glitter-spattered pictures, and laughing.

Sitting in one corner of the sky-blue playroom, next to a woodland-themed mural with cartoon animals, Jasmine Wu, Samantha Fountain, Izzy Cox, all 13, and Sara Chin, 12, watched as the youngsters played. Their months-long mission was a success, and they were happy. The four are Girl Scouts and for the past six months they worked on turning the shelter’s neglected playroom, which had become a default storage area, into a place where children can actually play and thrive.

That meant cleaning the room out, designing a floor plan and a wall mural, seeking donations from local businesses in order to furnish the room, then rolling up their sleeves to repair drywall, spackle and paint, build bookshelves and turn their plan into reality. They worked with shelter moms and kids throughout, seeking their input on what they wanted in a playroom.

“The mural was fun, and even painting the walls was fun,” Jasmine said.

Most of the girls who worked on the project are part of Wilmette Troop 41302, which is helmed by Samantha’s mother, Gloria Fountain. A few were from other troops; Sara, for example, is from Glencoe Troop 40916, and the team included girls from Wilmette Troops 40058, 40423 and 41752, Fountain said.

The playroom began, for Fountain’s nine-girl troop at least, when its junior high school-aged members prepared to work toward their community service-oriented Silver Award. They looked at several options, such as helping an animal shelter, planting a community garden or organizing a book drive at a Chicago school. Then Samantha and Izzy thought of New Life, where they had tutored young residents in math.

“We noticed that the playroom there was kind of dangerous, with stuff piled up,” Samantha remembered. “It really couldn’t be used as a playroom. So when we thought about a project we felt there would more impact for good if we came here.”

When Fountain contacted shelter director Schona Buranda about the idea she got an immediately enthusiastic response. By sheer coincidence, Evanston resident Dana Teeter, a dedicated shelter volunteer, had also planned to renovate the playroom. Partway into the project, however, she was forced to shelve those plans while dealing with health issues.

Having the Scouts take over the project was close to a miracle, Buranda said July 30. Teeter was eventually able to return and join the Scout team as it completed its work. And the playroom’s effects reverberated beyond itself, she said.

“It’s the one place children have away from their congregate living. Having a place to play is essential for children’s development, and some of these kids have had traumas of many kinds, so it also becomes a place for healing. Not only that, it’s a mom’s reprieve, too.”

Playroom design took roughly six months and multiple shelter visits on the Scouts’ part. They knew that children of different ages would use the room, so the layout needed to provide space for different types of activities.

They set one area aside for quiet physical play on the floor, complete with colorful rugs and a tiny circus tent. They set another corner aside for a craft table, and provided lots of storage space around the walls for toys and books. The girls and shelter residents who volunteered eventually cleared the little room.

Once the room was ready, Jasmine put her artistic talents to work on the mural. Izzy’s grandfather Leroy Cox, also an artist, helped the girls reproduce her sketch onto the wall, and they painted it.

Meanwhile, they were on the hunt for financial and other support; reaching out to the Evanston Home Depot for repair supplies, and to Sam’s Club of Evanston for a television and Blu-ray disc that will soon be delivered. Wilmette businesses also helped buy furniture and playroom bookcases, which the girls put together (Those businesses were: Valley Lodge Tavern, Antiques and Jewelry by Barats, de Guilio Kitchen Design, Depot Nuevo, Al’s Meats, Elfriede’s Hair Salon, and Kronos Gyros).

Jasmine, Samantha, Izzy and Sara admitted the work had sometimes been harder than they expected; they also said they were happily surprised to realize how much of a relief the playroom provided moms as well as kids.

Meanwhile, 7-year-old Erviana finished coloring the Cat in the Hat, and moved on to the second craft table, where she started a bright pink painting quickly festooned by sparkles almost as bright as her smile. “I like coloring and painting,” she confided. So did her friend Suniyah. Nearby, 13-year-old Lazeya was drawing, and her brother David clutched a book to his chest without saying how old he was.

“It looks neat right now,” Buranda said, “but it will get chaotic, and that’s what it should be, chaotic and untidy, because the children are enjoying it. Enjoying being children.”

Tags:

WORKING FOR PLAY

WHAT: Playroom renovation

FOR: New Life shelter

BY: Wilmette Girl Scout Troop 41302

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