Seniors bring sunshine to homeless kids


Having grown up in New York during the Great Depression, Harriet Raskin knows what it is like to be a child caught in grown-up problems.

"After my father lost his job, my mother would take my infant sister and [me] with her to see the poultry man," Mrs. Raskin said. "She'd tell him that she'd pluck his chickens if he'd give her some chicken parts to make soup for our dinner."

Today, as a volunteer with Family Friends, a project that matches homeless children to surrogate grandparents, Mrs. Raskin helps children hold on to their childhood.

"Children need love and attention and want to have fun," said Mrs. Raskin, a 66-year-old Pikesville resident who visits Booth House, a Salvation Army shelter on St. Paul Street, twice a week. "We plant the seed in the child's mind that even though this bad thing is happening to them, it is only happening now."

The program, started by the National Council on the Aging and the Salvation Army in July 1990, pairs children with elderly volunteers who involve them in activities such as playing at the park, going to the movies or reading at the library -- things they would being doing if they had a permanent home. It is only one of three such programs in the United States; the other two are in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Connie Wise, director of the Salvation Army's homeless services, said senior citizens give the wisdom of experience to both children and parents. "They can give mothers advice about discipline and nurturing the children as well as give attention to the kids," she said.

More than $43,000 in grants to start the program came from the Van Ameringen Foundation of New York and the Noxell Corp. in Baltimore. With those sources scheduled to dry up in December, project managers are scrambling to line up newgrants by then.

"The money goes to pay for the outings, materials for crafts, books and stipends for the volunteers, which basically covers their transportation to and from the shelter," said Ruth Ramsey, director of the shelter.

"I didn't think there would be anything to do here when I first got here," said Tommy Dabney, 10, who lived in the shelter for two months with his mother and three brothers before moving into an apartment in Lafayette Courts on Aisquith Street. "But then I met Ms. Harriet [Raskin], and we went places and did things. We are always having fun."

Volunteers took the children on a program-sponsored trip to see "Robin Hood" at the Towsontowne Dinner Theatre one Saturday in June.

And once, Mrs. Raskin took Tommy to the courthouse on Calvert Street, where he saw "a real lawyerand a real judge."

"It was boring at first. But a man came in with shackles on his hands and feet, and I figured he must have done something really bad," said Tommy, who will begin the fourth grade at Edgecombe Circle Elementary School this fall. "But I still want to be a lawyer. I want to help people tell their side of the story."

While people may know the adult's side of the homeless story, many don't realize the effects of disrupting a child's normal lifestyle. Ed Scoggins, 69, a Towson man who has been a volunteer since February, understands a child's need to be active.

"It's good to just get them out sometimes, go to the Inner Harbor and get something to eat with them," Mr. Scoggins said. "The parents have a lot on their minds. We are friends to the children while they are looking for a place to live."

The last thing Angela Dubose had on her mind during her six-week stay at the shelter was entertaining her three children.

"I was kind of depressed," said Ms. Dubose, who was sent by the Department of Social Services to the shelter after she and her three children were evicted from her East Baltimore home. "I was so worried about getting a house for the children, I didn't think about much else."

Parents need a break from the pressure and the project gives them a little less to worry about, Mrs. Ramsey said.

"When I see a family come in, they are in distress," she said. "The children need attention, and there are times when the parents can't give it to them.

"That's where the volunteers come in. The volunteer is their special somebody," she said.

The 14 volunteers work with one or more of the 30 to 35 children between the ages of 6 and 18 who are staying at Booth House on any given day. Some volunteers have as many as three children at a time since the program extends beyond the shelter once the child is settled in a new home.

Brian Dabney, Tommy's brother, said his volunteer, Mr. Scoggins, gave his family furniture, helped them move into their apartment and still stays in touch. "He's always helping us with things and giving us things," said Brian, 11, who will start sixth grade at Windsor Hills Elementary School in the fall. "I talk to him every morning on the telephone."

Evelyn Rockenbach said that the program is just as important to the volunteers.

"This program gives me a purpose," said Mrs. Rockenbach, a 74-year-old woman who has volunteered since October 1990. "The children have done wonderful things for me. I really feel good about them and about myself."

And as a person who grew up building character through adversity, Harriet Raskin believes it is important for children in the program to maintain personal pride.

"The apartment we lived in during the '30s wasn't much. The big neon sign of the store we lived above used to flash in my face as I slept in the bedroom I shared with my parents and my baby sister," Mrs. Raskin said.

"But we were very proud of what we had, and we'd do anything to make that little bit beautiful," she said. "That's what these kids have to do. They have to learn what they can from this situation and use it to make something of themselves, something they can be proud of."

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