A helping hand for kids
With tutoring, field trips and birthday parties, Opportunity Services Center helps kids have a 'normal childhood'
When Nina first wound up in a homeless shelter six years ago, escaping an abusive relationship, her main concern was immediate: finding a place to give birth to the baby who would be coming in one week.
After that, the picture kept getting broader. Where would they live? How would she keep her son safe and healthy? How would she afford a winter jacket or deal with problems at school?
For the last six years, Nina (not her real name) has depended on the people at Opportunity Services Center in Palo Alto to help her answer these questions. She and her son live in an apartment upstairs at the center, but a roof over her head wasn't all she needed. With the help of staff and volunteers from InnVision Shelter Network, which provides many services at the center, Nina has been finishing college, planning for nursing school and learning how to be a mother. Staff have also been helping her navigate the court system while she's dealt with "a difficult dynamic" with her son's father, she said.
"It was a blessing," she said. "I didn't know anything about babies. They would literally hold him for me while I was writing papers."
When her son had a problem at his kindergarten, staff helped him change schools. Buses take him to and from school, and after school he can play, read and do other activities in the center's Bredt Family Center.
As Nina spoke to a reporter in the family area, she looked over and smiled at her son, who was sitting at a table with several other children. They were surrounded by shelves of books and toys, math flashcards, board games and a small computer lab. They looked happy. At another table, high school volunteers helped other kids with their homework. A staff member served up snacks in the kitchen.
"It's like they're helping raise him," Nina said. She got choked up for a minute. "It gives me chills."
This year, the InnVision Shelter Network programs at the Bredt Family Center are also getting a little help from their friends: a $7,500 grant from the Weekly Holiday Fund, which collects donations to aid local nonprofits that serve children, families and individuals.
The Opportunity Services Center, located on Encina Way in Palo Alto, opened in 2006, organized by the Community Working Group. While InnVision Shelter Network (InnVision merged with Shelter Network, another area nonprofit aiding the homeless, earlier this year) provides social services at the center, Charities Housing is the landlord for the 88 apartments.
At the center, many services are available for families and individuals, both those living in the center's apartments and those who drop in. Case managers assess family needs, providing guidance and advocacy on issues related to schools, living situations and the court system. Drop-ins may also come by just to use the shower and laundry facilities, get medical care from the free clinic run by Peninsula HealthCare Connection onsite or attend a support-group meeting.
The Holiday Fund grant helps fund the after-school and summer programs for kids. Nina and her son are one of the 18 families living at the center, and many more come by on a drop-in basis.
"We want to make sure the children aren't traumatized by their homelessness. We want them to have normal childhood experiences," said Maria Duzon, marketing manager for InnVision Shelter Network.
That can mean supervised after-school play or getting tutored by a staff member or high school or Stanford University student volunteer. There are also field trips for kids and chaperones: to museums, sporting events and other cultural attractions or to a nearby university to see what college life is like.
"They can envision a world where they can go to college," Duzon said.
Philip Dah, senior director at the Opportunity Services Center, pointed out a mural where an artist has painted pictures of some of the apartments' young residents. One small blond girl is depicted with the Hoover Tower behind her; she's already decided she wants to go to Stanford.
It's important for the kids to have these dreams, especially when they're surrounded by affluent schoolmates in the Palo Alto Unified School District, Dah said. "We don't want them to feel underprivileged."
Nearby, Palo Alto High School junior Taha Rafeeqi helped a girl with her math homework. He comes here every week for an hour or two to tutor children.
"I just like giving back to the community. It's awesome working with kids," he said. When asked why he wanted to help the homeless, he was matter-of-fact. "It's a general sense of community, and they are part of it."
The center also holds birthday and holiday parties for the children, as well as community dinners that give the place a family feel, Nina said.
"It's a blessing because there's always kids for him to play with," she said of her son. "I feel supported. I don't feel lonely."
Nina said she's looking forward to moving into their own place. But in the meantime, there's something to be said for getting to know people from all walks of life, learning not to look down upon people who have fallen upon hard times and never thought they would.
Nina recalled a moment when a painter moved into an apartment near her. He looked scruffy and might have frightened some kids. But her son cheerfully greeted the man, who looked pleased, Nina said.
"He said: 'I like your son. He hasn't learned how to judge.'"
The Holiday Fund aims to raise $350,000 this year for local charities. More information is available on page 22.
Arts Editor Rebecca Wallace can be emailed at email@example.com.