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Becca Waltrop

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Bonnie Baxley, Community Lodgings' executive director, Mary Tiemann and Mary Hellem at the "Communitea" fundraising event this past spring at Old Town Alexandria's Union Street Public House. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Theismann

Community Lodgings transitions nearly 25 families each year from homeless to self-sufficiency
By Jane Hess Collins

Bonnie Baxley, Community Lodgings' executive director, Mary Tiemann and Mary Hellem at the "Communitea" fundraising event this past spring at Old Town Alexandria's Union Street Public House. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Theismann

Not long ago I wrote a story about kids who read to puppies. When Community Lodgings asked me to help with Read Aloud, their reading program created for toddlers whose parents attended evening life skills classes, I was ready for some good, old-fashioned story time.

Read Aloud’s goal is to instill the love of reading with these kids by having adults read to them and help them with projects related to the story theme. Being somewhat inexperienced with preschool kids, I thought it would be fairly straight-forward. The kids would file in, obediently sit down and listen intently to every word read to them for the next 50 minutes.

I can hear the parents and pre-school teachers laughing now.

Managing-I say that word loosely-a room full of pre-schoolers is a crapshoot. You never know what the prevailing mood will be, or when it will change. What you can be certain of is that their moods change every few minutes. Normally about seven kids attend Read Aloud. This night our wee guests were Anna and Caleb (names changed), both three years old, and one very smart seven year old boy who stayed in the back of the room and read to himself.

With staff members AmyRodriguez and Becca Waltrop, two middle school girls named Karen and Alyssa whose families were staying with Community Lodgings and me, we outnumbered the kids five to three and, I think, scared them a little.

Amy and Becca had carefully selected a book and corresponding activity. The book was about spiders and the craft projects were to navigate through a paper spider maze and color a spider-themed bookmark that they could also use to list the books they’ve read (love the continual emphasis on reading). Becca brought a box of donated books for the kids to select from and take back to their parents so, hopefully, there would be many more Read Aloud moments for them.

At first Anna and Caleb would have none of it. The more we showed them soft-fabric books and pictures, the less interested they were. Anna snatched Caleb’s books and toys and whatever else he was holding and kept them for herself. Caleb cried. I stood by helplessly while the other four adults tried to entice them with books about animals, trucks and any other theme that might capture their attention.

Then, magically, Anna and Caleb stopped bickering and gave Alyssa their full, rapt attention when she began to read the spider book to them. They colored their spider bookmarks and picked books to take back to their parents. It was a good night.

While the five of us struggled to captivate the attention of two three-year-olds, the parents’ life skill class was held in the next room. Although that night the parents attended a yoga class, a typical class could cover topics ranging from English as a Second Language (ESL), literacy, parenting, job counseling, finance, communication, substance abuse prevention, domestic violence prevention and job skills. Parents can stay in the program for up to two years, and to complete the transition from homeless to self sufficiency, Community Lodgings helps families find affordable housing that meets HUD standards.

Community Lodgings supports the entire Arlington/Alexandria (Arlandria) community.as well as the homeless. Their summer camp, part of their Youth Education Program, is primarily attended by the local, at-risk kids living in the surrounding Hispanic neighborhood.

Whether you want to volunteer with adults or preschoolers, Community Lodgings needs you. In-kind donations for the Youth Education Program and for the homeless families in their Transitional Housing Program are listed here. The adult residents need budget mentors and ESL tutors, while the kids need mentors and after-school tutors. If manual labor is more your thing, you can help paint the interior of their transitional homes. Finally, if you love the adorable chaos of little kids, Read Aloud needs readers several evenings a week.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website. If you’d like her to volunteer with your organization, contact her here.

Becca Waltrop

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