Nine-year-old Christian and 12-year-old Miguel received a standing ovation from 1,200 people after performing a moving cello and violin piece at the 20th Annual Women’s Breakfast at Boston Marriott Copley Place.
They are both alumni of Horizons for Homeless Children early education program, a non-profit serving more than 1,600 homeless children in Massachusetts each week. Horizons for Homeless Children hosted its annual breakfast on October 25, to share stories of people affected by homelessness and to raise donations to support construction of its early education centers.
The event’s MC, Trenni Kusnierek, anchor of NBC Sports Boston, introduced a host of keynote speakers including Jeannette Walls, New York Times best selling author of “The Glass Castle,” a memoir documenting her childhood experience of extreme poverty and homelessness. Walls began by telling a story of how she saw her mother rummaging through trash cans in New York, homeless, and unravelled the journey of how she came to reconcile with her past.
Walls emphasized the importance of hope in overcoming childhood adversary. “It broke my heart. The thing I keep coming back to is that glass castle. It is hope and belief,” said Walls.
“Kids are so good in finding a light in the darkness. If you have one adult in the world that believes in you, then you can make it through so many things. I think if you are given a vision to believe in yourself, you can see what can be done and that life is beautiful,” she said.
Children and women empowerment was a theme that was emphasized throughout the morning. Klara (25), a former homeless mother, retold her two year period of homelessness and her triumph with the help of Horizons. Klara moved to the U.S. from Haiti when she was 14-years-old, and had an unexpected pregnancy in her sophomore year of college. She was placed into a shelter just a month after her son Kaden was born.
Klara learned about Horizons through a shelter worker and sent Kaden there when he was five months old.
“After hearing all the horrible stories I had heard in the news or seen in day cares… I would mark his diaper where no one would see it, so I could see if they were changing his diapers,” said Klara in her speech. “Then I quickly figured out he was being cared for better than I could ever hope for.”
Klara recently graduated with a double major in communications and criminal justice, and a minor in sociology with a 3.8 GPA. She now works for Horizons which, as she noted in an interview with Spare Change News, had helped her the most during her period of homelessness.
“For parents like me I always had either school or work everyday, so I would go to work and come at 5:50 or 7:00, and they close at 6 o’clock, so I’m the last person to pick him up. But they are always with him,” Klara said. “If I needed support that wasn’t even child care honestly. They were there.”
Most of the tables were filled with working mothers like Klara, and many women volunteers, Ruthie Smith (30) and Crystaltina Montagna (27) are working women in the health care and nonprofit sector who both serve as Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs) at Horizons. Currently working in health care, Smith began volunteering for Horizon when she was a student at UMass Amherst.
“I’m a workaholic, so I usually don’t take off time from work, but I come to Horizon to volunteer for two hours every week.” Smith said. “It’s always worth it.”
Working alongside Smith, Montagna noted the importance of her role in building trust. “As a former homeless youth myself, I know what it’s like for people to be a little suspicious to the nice gestures of people who are readily offering help,” Montagna said. “It’s hard to give up your child even for a couple of hours in a safe environment. We try our best to be a safety net for them.”
The breakfast raised over $800,000, surpassing its goal of raising $10 million since the first breakfast, according to Rachel Levy, Assistant Account Executive of Version 2.0 Communications. About 200 guests attended the first Women’s breakfast in 1998. Since then, the breakfast has expanded in both fundraising – reaching its $1 million mark in 2003 and its $5 million mark in 2011 – and in attendance, attracting 1,576 people when poet Maya Angelou was invited as a keynote speaker.
Kate Barrand, President and CEO of Horizons, explained that such funding is critical for daily operations. “We have to raise about $5.7 million just to keep the wheels going for the whole organization,” Barrand said. “We have 90 shelters all across the state and we have a thousand volunteers. This money keeps the light on, pays employees, and pays our teachers to do our training of volunteers.”
Barrand noted that Horizons will continue to commit to and expand on their vision. On September 21, Horizons and WaterMark Development broke ground on a new Horizons’ Center in Roxbury, where 225 children ages two months to five years, are expected to be accommodated.