On first glance, it didn’t seem like much.
A small boy played with a figurine. Behind him, a young girl perused a selection of costumes, trying to choose between dressing as a firefighter or a police officer.
It was an average Friday morning at the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s Adams Street Women and Family Shelter’s preschool. Six kids, ages 2 to 5, ran wild while a teacher and volunteer frantically tried to keep up.
Not long ago, the scene wouldn’t have been nearly as active. The toys the mission had to offer kids in its preschool program were old and worn. Some basic necessities, they simply didn’t have at all.
That changed this year, and a mere $1,500 — couch-cushion change in the world of program funding — made it possible.
The money, according to Alison Powell, the mission’s youth program manager, “allowed us revamp our preschool, and enhance the programs we’re offering our families, who need it the most.”
It’s the perfect example of how something that seems relatively small can make a big, big difference.
In September, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma awarded six grants, totaling $8,000, part of a program funded by South Sound Together.
The money went to programs throughout the area designed to “enhance the quality of life for children and families living, working and playing in Pierce County,” according to the organization’s final report of 2017.
The mission’s Adams Street shelter was one of the recipients. After closing the preschool at its Tyler Street Family Housing facility in April, the mission began relocating to the newly expanded Adams Street site — only to realize how many things it was lacking.
The move coincided with an expansion at Adams Street, which saw capacity at the facility for women and families expand by 70 percent. In the past year, the shelter served just under 1,000 guests and provided the equivalent of 32,000 nights of safety.
Many of those served were children. And, with the expansion, the numbers are only expected to rise.
Which made the shabby state of affairs at the preschool — which reopened at Adams Street in late October — a situation that desperately needed addressing.
“Just through the moving around, and bringing that space over here, we realized there were some much-needed items, so the Children’s Museum grant was a good fit,” Powell said.
“There were some basics for preschool that we didn’t have, and we don’t always get funds to buy things like that.”
Again, $1,500 doesn’t seem like much. But to the mission — and specifically the children who pass through its preschool — it made all the difference, said the mission’s grant manager, John Humphrey.
The money paid for the costumes and figurines, and will soon help cover things such as a light table, music instruments, a life-size Connect 4 game and outdoor play equipment.
“The $1500 is fine for us,” Humphrey said. “But the little girl that we hear having fun over there, who has never perhaps been in this stable of an environment, with this kind of adult support —something new in her life, a beautiful new piece of something that can help her learn, and help her interact with her new-found friends — that’s why a 1$,500 grant means so much.”
“So, to these kids, that $1,500 grant is life-changing, potentially,” he continued.
To understand the impact of such a seemingly small invest, you need to grapple with the complicated work undertaken at the mission’s preschool.
Today, roughly eight young children are enrolled — all staying at either the Adams Street shelter or the Tyler Street facility. Powell hopes that will increase to 12 in the near future.
Most of the children, she said, are “significantly lower in literacy skills and language.” So the preschool couples academic skills with a focus on improving social and emotional skills.
“Kids will come in with no words at all, or not talking, and part of that is because they’ve been so scared or they’re coming out a trauma they’ve experienced,” Powell said. “Even within a month you can see a huge improvement.”
Most of the children are escaping homes with abuse and domestic violence, Humphrey said. Add this to the trauma inherent to experiencing homelessness, and you begin to appreciate the necessity of the work being done here.
“What some people don’t realize is that homelessness, in and of itself, is a trauma,” said Stacy Cleveland, the mission’s senior director of operations and outcomes. “And so just the fact that the children and their families are in transition, they’re going through some trauma.
“So, right off the bat, boom, there you go,” Cleveland said. “There are so many complex challenges.”
Those challenges aren’t erased by a $1,500 check and a classroom full of new toys and learning materials. But they do become a little easier to address, Cleveland said.
“Whenever we can invest in the lives of children, the benefits are going to be exponential,” she said.
On Friday morning, the kids underfoot seemed largely oblivious to much of this. Instead, they were consumed with which new friend to play with, which new toy to use or which new costume to put on.
Which, after all, is kind of the point.
This article, written by Matt Driscoll, originally appeared in the December 25, 2017 issue of The News Tribune.