Philanthropy - Normal Like Home

by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "W & lt;/span & e're not childcare," says Linsey Robinson, program manager for the YWCA's Homeless Children's Educational Resource Program. About 22 homeless children from a handful of local elementary schools (mostly Holmes and Audubon) arrive at the north-side center at 8:30 every weekday morning during the summer. The Y, a licensed childcare provider, feeds them breakfast and lunch (courtesy of Spokane Public Schools) and takes them out on field trips throughout the region, but Robinson says her program is different. It's not about simply keeping the kids out of trouble during the hot summer days -- it's about empowerment.

"These kids have no power in their lives," she says. "So much of their lives is dictated to them -- where they're going to live, who they're going to live with, who their mom's boyfriend is going to be. They can make their own choices here ... They don't get in trouble here."

Robinson adds that many of the children in her program would be kicked out of other programs for violence or inappropriate language. At the Y, the children choose to behave well or poorly; it doesn't matter much to the staff. "I'm not mad at you. I'm not going to yell at you," she says, as if to the kids. It's just that if they make poor choices, they don't get to join the rest of the group on their many daily excursions.

"For me, it all goes back to Aristotle," says Robinson, who graduated from Gonzaga with a degree in political science and religious studies. "You're not born with virtue of character. Virtue of character is acquired through practice."

There's no typical day at the Y, especially during the summer. (The program also operates during the school year, but only for about two hours each afternoon.) Most of their days they spend outside of the building -- on field trips to Wild Waters and Silverwood, to community swimming pools (the YWCA's closed in October), or to the mall.

"We want to get them to feel like part of a community, to feel like a part of Spokane," says Robinson. Which is why they take them to parks all over town, to give them a sense of their surroundings. "We feel like it's working as far as feeling like they belong somewhere."

This feeling of normalcy and fitting in is a central thrust of the program's mission. Robinson wants to instill a sense of belonging in her charges. That's why, when the program sent six teams of homeless kids to Hoopfest, it wasn't enough to simply register them; every other team out there had matching shirts, so that's what the YWCA kids got. When they send them to camp, they don't just pay for the trip; they buy them disposable cameras and pay for the developing. They buy them toiletry kits and white T-shirts for tie-dying. It's all about "normalizing," says Robinson.

Of course, sometimes that backfires when the kids are completely unfamiliar with the activity they're trying to get used to. "The first time we took them bowling, it was a total catastrophe," Robinson says. The staff hadn't taken into account that "26 kids who'd never been bowling" wouldn't know what to expect -- didn't know they were going to have to wear weird shoes, that two kids would share a ball, that they'd put scores up on the screen, that they had to roll the balls and not throw them. It was chaos. Now they prepare them weeks in advance.

The preparation -- and the training in character -- is paying off. Robinson says many people who have hosted the group on their field trips have remarked on their good behavior and welcomed them back. "It's important that people know these kids exist," she says.

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Summer Parkways @ South Hill

Through June 20
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