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In Sandra's Lodge

Mathieu, with Symphony (left) and Jah-Quiah and the latest edition of Kids' 2 Cents. Photo by Justin Knight

Mathieu, with Symphony (left) and Jah-Quiah and the latest edition of Kids' 2 Cents. Photo by Justin Knight

Mr. Valting is frowning. His class tricked him. George tricked him into thinking there were donuts in the closet. Mr. Valting walked into the closet. George closed the door and a big monster was in the closet. He was big and fuzzy, but he was friendly.

So starts a story by Symphony, a homeless kindergartner, written with the help of Paula Mathieu, assistant English professor and director of BC's first-year writing program. For the past three years, Mathieu and a group of BC student volunteers have run an hour-long weekly writing and activity program for the children of Sandra's Lodge, a transitional shelter for 35 homeless families in Waltham, Massachusetts. Each spring, the collected writing and artwork of the children appears in a special section of an issue of Spare Change News, the biweekly Boston newspaper sold on the streets by homeless vendors. The name of the section is Kids' 2 Cents.

A 20-MINUTE drive north of Boston College, Sandra's Lodge is a redbrick former dormitory on the sprawling campus of a residential care center for the mentally handicapped. Families stay at the shelter for an average of eight months to a year. On a Thursday night in November at about six o'clock, Mathieu and five student volunteers are preparing the shelter's couch-lined third-floor community room for the evening's activities, laying out paper, crayons, pencils, colored Popsicle sticks, and other craft materials on the tables—although, says Allison Laffer '06, an economics major from San Diego, California, "We usually end up on the floor."

The first child to arrive is Symphony, dressed in a white tank top with khaki pants, her black hair in a bun, who says with a shrug, "I'm the only one." She is refuted when five or six other children, ages five to 12, enter (the residents are free to wander in and out, and participation is voluntary). Mathieu and Symphony sit side-by-side in one corner as Symphony draws cartoonish figures in pencil; soon, after Symphony has created several characters, Mathieu asks their names (Lee-Lee, Chelsea, and George), and then asks, "So we can write a story?" Symphony agrees, answering and elaborating on Mathieu's leading questions: "What do Chelsea and Lee-Lee do? Is that a teacher? What's his name?"

On the floor, Julio Santil '08 of Salem, Massachusetts, engages in a drawing competition with Jancarlos, a quiet fourth-grader who wears the hood of his extra-large red sweatshirt over his head; Brenna Casey '05, an English major from Waterford, New York, referees. After Jancarlos sweeps the contest with his picture of a bowl of fruit, he agrees to a writing competition based on the drawings: Both stories must include a puppy, a bowl of fruit, and Casey. Judging the results, Casey notes, "Jancarlos has dialogue"; Santil concedes. In May, Jancarlos's story will be published in Spare Change, but he and his family will already have left Sandra's Lodge.

Mathieu and Symphony have finished writing the story of Mr. Valting. Mathieu asks Symphony, "Should I read it to everyone?" Symphony smiles and says, "No." A beat. "Yes." While Mathieu calls out for the group's attention (some of the children have been making picture frames from Popsicle sticks, feathers, and paper plates), Symphony plucks a book at random from the room's shelves and, as Mathieu recites, feigns a deep parsing of the text. Later, near the hour's end but before snack time lures a few more boys and ruckus into the room, stories by Jancarlos, Carolina (a third-grader who dictated hers to Santil in Spanish), and others are read aloud by the authors, then filed away by Mathieu in three-ring binders bearing the children's names.


KIDS' 2 CENTS began three years ago, when Mathieu was searching for a way to bring more writing by homeless people into Spare Change, which she serves as a board member and volunteer. She had led writing workshops for homeless adults while a graduate student in Chicago, but encountered little enthusiasm for such offerings in Boston. The executive director of Spare Change at the time, Fran Czajkowski, suggested that Mathieu find a way to include the voices of homeless children in the paper. With the backing of Gisele Sears, the director of Sandra's Lodge, Mathieu launched the program.

To obtain volunteer manpower, Mathieu introduced Kids' 2 Cents as an optional final project in her fall 2002 course "The Literatures of Homelessness." (The course, an English elective, examines news accounts, policy studies, fiction, memoir, and poetry.) Eight students from the class signed on, and the project began that October. The shelter's children (and mothers) were quick to accept the idea, but as the end of the semester neared, both Mathieu and the students agreed that they had not gained enough experience with the children to feel comfortable publishing their stories. It was Laffer, then a freshman, who asked, "Can we keep coming back in the spring?" All but two students returned, the project became an informal extracurricular, and the first Kids' 2 Cents section of Spare Change was published on March 20, 2003.

In the winter of 2004–05, Sandra's Lodge had an unexpectedly large influx of children. On several visits, the writing group was caught shorthanded, with, according to Mathieu, 20 to 25 children jamming the community room, overseen by four or five volunteers. One such night in February, Mathieu and three sophomores, Warren Ruchie, John O'Donnell, and Alexis Lobodocky, did their best to tend a crowded room. O'Donnell was playing hangman with four children, and Ruchie was trying to read to several girls, one of whom put a costume tiara on his head, declaring him "the new drama queen." (Male volunteers have rock-star status with the children, as no males over the age of 12 are allowed as residents at the shelter.) A thin, aloof boy named Renee spun himself in circles in the middle of the room. When several boys began to "slow fight," Mathieu gave up on writing for the night and raised her voice to the room: "Who wants to play bingo?" Later, saying goodbye to one girl, Mathieu asks, "I'll see you next week?" The little girl's response: "No, I'm moving."


IT IS MAY 12, and finals are under way at Boston College, but Mathieu and several of the volunteers—Ruchie, O'Donnell, Lobodocky, and Haylie Tran '08, along with Alex Tsouvalas, a trustee from Spare Change—have come to Sandra's Lodge to throw a pizza party and hand out the new edition of Kids' 2 Cents. As has become customary, several BC students (Tran and Santil) wrote articles of their own for the section recounting their time at the shelter, as a prelude to the six pages of drawings, stories, and poems written by the children. "Naya told me that she speaks Somali," wrote Tran in her essay. "In [her] eyes, I could remember my childhood" as a Vietnamese immigrant, "not knowing English at all, sitting in a room with strangers, and trying to comprehend everything that surrounded me."

Now, while 20 or so children extract pizza from boxes and show off their dancing, Mathieu pulls aside several of her more prolific authors and points out their bylines to them; this includes Symphony, who has now lived at the shelter the entire school year. (Ruchie, meanwhile, is being chased about by a small pack of girls, saying in passing, "I'm being pinched and I can't do anything!") The children beam upon seeing their work in print; Symphony, when later asked if she enjoyed the issue, gives a coy shrug—and a smile.

After an hour the celebration is over; copies of the issue are set aside for the children and their mothers. A crowd trails the volunteers to the shelter's entrance. As the college students step out into the spring night, Symphony tags along through the door, and when Mathieu urges her back inside, she turns and runs 15 feet away, compelling Mathieu to track her down, successfully prolonging the group's stay a minute longer.

Paul Voosen


The names of some of the children have been changed.

 

Page revised 8/15/05.


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