The sheltered life: Student volunteer develops bonds with homeless children

November 9, 2014 — by Rachel Hull and Michelle Leung

Senior Celia Kohler met Junior when he was 6 years old, and already he had experienced enough struggles to last him a lifetime.

Editor’s note: Junior’s full name has not been included in order to protect his privacy.

Senior Celia Kohler met Junior when he was 6 years old, and already he had experienced enough struggles to last him a lifetime. He ended up at the InnVision Shelter Network transitional home for mothers and children after his father lost his job and the family lost its apartment.

Four years ago, when Kohler first met him, Junior struggled with a “short fuse,” aggression and a need for control.

“[Junior is] from a bit of a tough background,” Kohler said.  “Substance abuse [has been] a really big part of his life. He has trouble with his anger; he really has issues with using his words, like he likes to swear and hit. He [had] that bad boy background, even as a 6 year old.”

Kohler started volunteering for InnVision as a freshman after learning about it through the National Charity League (NCL). She has volunteered at two different locations in San Jose: one year at the Villa, and three years at the Commercial Street Inn (CSI). 

Though her initial motive was only to gain enough hours to proceed to the next year of NCL, she ultimately stayed on past the required duration.

Paramount in her decision to stay with InnVision were the connections she formed with the children she was able to work with, including Junior.

Kohler buddied up with Junior at the start of her volunteering, back when he still suffered from a multitude of problems. She said that because he lacked many things to call his own, he often grew possessive.

“Homeless people like to hold onto things and say [they’re] theirs; they have that tendency,” Kohler said. “And so he would use his pencil, and he would say, ‘No, give it back, it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.’ Mine was his favorite word.”

Junior has grown over the past four years that Kohler has known him into a stronger and more confident 10 year old. In contrast to his aggressive attitude at the beginning of their relationship, Junior is now comfortable asking Kohler for help.

“Now he understands that he can share, and he’s good with that, and he uses his words a lot better than he used to,” Kohler said. “He has not hit anybody the entire year, and in summer camp, he didn’t hit a single person. He did bite, but that’s just normal. Kids bite.”

The reality of homelessness
Shielded by several pink-flowered trees and a low wall, the Villa has a light red-tiled roof and light pastel coloring. CSI has yellow-orange walls with arched windows and a bold green roof.

Both buildings, though seemingly inconspicuous, act as safe havens amidst the obstacles that families facing homelessness endure. What the children really need at this time, said Kohler, isn’t pity.

“I just think it’s nice for [Junior] to have someone to talk to, because his parents are really stressed with their circumstances,” Kohler said.

And by “their circumstances,” Kohler means the reality that these parents face: they may not have a place to sleep the next night. Their belongings are sparse, because the transitional home is only a “buffer zone” for them, a place for them to get back on their feet. In fact, everything Junior owns could fit into a suitcase.

Though the program’s goal is for families to stay in these homes for a maximum of six months, Kohler said that this is often not the case, as evidenced by children like Junior.

According to Kohler, the program’s transitional homes operate with a set of “strict rules” that stem from their protective nature.

Because of issues with aggressive men in the past, fathers must live in separate housing from their families. The mothers and children live in rooms with one or two bunk beds, depending on the size of the family.

Kohler said that the sharp divide between her life in comfortable Saratoga and the lives of the children she works with is sobering at times; for instance, when she takes out her phone to check the time, the children ask to play with it because they have never touched an iPhone before.

“That’s heartbreaking, but that’s when I feel a little out of place, because I can’t really connect on that level,” Kohler said. “I don’t think any of us have really struggled like they have, and they’re what, six? Twelve? That’s awful.”

What makes it worthwhile
Kohler has been volunteering with InnVision for 100 hours every summer, and during that time, she and the children take part in a variety of activities, including visiting the park, the Children’s Discovery Museum and Happy Hollow. They also have math and art lessons to give each day a more “school-y” feel, according to Kohler.

She said her experiences with InnVision have cemented her future plans to continue working with children in some capacity. Whether she finds a career as a business woman or doctor, she still plans to work with kids on the weekends.

“Honestly, I could say the whole sappy ‘Oh, it makes me feel better about myself helping out my community,’ but it really is for the kids,” Kohler said. “Just working with kids is great, no matter where they’re from or what their background.”

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