Welcome Home Neighbor harnesses generosity of Hyattsville
BY HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG
For families moving from homeless shelters to stable housing, setting up a household can seem like an insurmountable task. Enter Welcome Home Neighbor, a new direct-aid project organized by Hyattsville residents Mark Betancourt, Jamila Larson and Alison Spain.
“So much quality stuff is shared [here],” Betancourt said, referring to the local listservs and
Facebook groups, “but a lot of the people who need it most don’t have access.” Welcome Home Neighbor aims to channel this local sharing economy towards those most in need.
Fellow organizer Larson, a licensed social worker and executive director of The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, explained how a case manager at a local shelter, which had often partnered with the Playtime Project, contacted her in the spring about a single mother with a toddler and 7-year-old boy. They were moving from the shelter into an apartment. Not only did the family have next to nothing, but the boy also used a wheelchair from injuries sustained from gun violence.
Larson immediately posted to local listservs asking for supplies. “We were amazed by the support,” she said. Listserv members provided wish list items and financial donations.
Betancourt, a freelance journalist, had already been helping Afghan refugees resettle in the area when he noticed Larson’s listserv post seeking donations for the family. When Betancourt and Larson realized they were close neighbors, an ongoing partnership seemed natural.
With the help of Larson’s friend Alison Spain and others, the impromptu group filled a rented truck with donated furniture, clothing and housewares to help the family move to their new apartment.
Following this apartment setup, the same shelter referred more families to Larson, she said, including one expecting twins. Larson said she thought that the shelter assumed Welcome Home Neighbor was a well-established group because it was so thorough in providing for households.
“Just like we’re not going to let a little boy in a wheelchair move by himself, we are not going to let this family have twins by themselves,” Larson said. In this recent case, the team collected diapers, baby clothes, baths, bottles — everything required to make a home for a double helping of newborns.
So, what is it about Hyattsville in particular that supports this direct-aid model?
“There’s a cohesiveness here where people take responsibility for each other,” Betancourt suggested. “Someone puts the word out that someone needs something, and people here respond.”
For now, Welcome Home Neighbor aims to stay small, local and informal by design, believing that this model allows a more versatile and compassionate approach than bureaucracies can offer.
“When we hear about one family who needs something, we feel that empathy so much more strongly than simply knowing about the millions of families who are in need,” said Betancourt. “And I think people everywhere, not just in Hyattsville, respond to that by asking, ‘What can I do?’ — and doing it.”
The group aims to help one family per week. They are currently seeking dedicated volunteers to help coordinate future setups. They also need space to store donations — currently stacked in organizers’ garages.
Brooms, mops, and even shower curtains are among treasured supplies, Larson said.
“Oh my gosh,” she added — speaking of shower curtains. “This mom didn’t take a [stand-up] shower for the first six weeks she lived in her apartment,” until the group provided the woman with a curtain.
Toys are also in high demand, according to Larson. When a 19-year-old survivor of domestic violence told Larson she had to take her toddler to the toy aisle of Target to play, Welcome Home Neighbor gathered gently used toys, including a play kitchen, and made the young family’s day.
“We know that it doesn’t make their lives perfect just because they have a kitchen garbage can,” Larson said. But, she added, “it’s a pretty feel-good experience to be able to provide such a concrete fix to some pretty concrete problems.”
To volunteer, donate items or provide storage space, email email@example.com.