Northeastern Students Promote Literacy in Family Shelter

Noelle Swan
Spare Change News

Nine college girls, one professor, one photographer, and a Spare Change reporter spill out of a tiny elevator and into the lobby of Families in Transition, a temporary shelter for families awaiting housing at the Huntington Avenue YMCA in Boston.

“Why don’t you go get Sebastian?” Professor Therese O’Neil-Pirozzi asks Ella Besas, one of her volunteers.

Besas grins. “Sebastian?” Her voice betrays her excitement. “Oh my God! He’s so cute,” she squeals before dashing down the hall to return with a toddler gripping her hand.

Besas and her peers have come to work with Sebastian and other children in the shelter as part of Northeastern University’s Homeless Shelter Story Telling Group. For fourteen years, O’Neil-Pirozzi has brought speech and language pathology majors into family shelters to help instill a love of reading, expose the children to stimulating language and literature opportunities, and model strategies for parents and shelter staff to further promote language and literacy.

Having previously worked with people experiencing homelessness through her church, O’Neil-Pirozzi felt strongly about continuing that tradition when she joined the faculty of Northeastern University. “I wanted to continue doing something that was important to me personally and that would be helpful professionally to my students.” She came up with a weekly storytelling group for children living in shelter.

For Besas, participation in the program has given her a valuable opportunity to practice skills taught in the classroom. She says that her first time volunteering, she found herself in a little over her head. Assigned to a child with a severe speech impediment, she had difficulty understanding him. She says that O’Neil-Pirozzi stood by her and supported her throughout the entire session. Later she learned that the child has cerebral palsy.

O’Neil-Pirozzi and her volunteers rarely know much about the children participating in the program. She checks in with shelter director David Tavares each week to get an idea of how many children in each age group might be attending that week. Participation is voluntary, so there is no guarantee how many of those children will actually join the group. Tavares may provide ages and first names, but no information about skills. Any information O’Neil-Pirozzi gets has been gathered during previous sessions.

Tonight is Besas’ third night visiting the shelter. She and two of her classmates are working with Sebastian, a verbal 2-year-old boy. Besas’ team met in O’Neil-Pirozzi’s lab before the session and designed a lesson plan around a picture book about rain to go along with the gloomy weather. Each of the three college students took turns reading the book to Sebastian, stopping frequently to ask him questions and encourage him to express his growing vocabulary. Sebastian calls out details from the illustrations—he especially likes the police officer.

In a separate room, three more college students sit around a kidney- shaped table with a slender 6-year-old boy with a buzz cut and paper- white skin. His mother has asked that he not be identified so we’ll call him Armend. The group has just finished reading “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss, and one of the volunteers is trying to explain the definition of the word rhyme. After giving a few examples of words that do rhyme, she asks him, “What about plane and pie, do they rhyme?”

Armend pauses a moment. “Puh, puh, puh,” he says under his breath, then answers more clearly, “Yes.”

“They do both start with P,” one volunteer offers, “but they don’t really rhyme.” She continues to repeat that rhymes sound alike.

Armend’s brow knits tighter causing a thin blue vein across his right temple to throb slightly.

O’Neil-Pirozzi quietly slips into a chair between two of the volunteers. “Can I play?” she asks before coming up with a game to illustrate rhyming sounds. She and her volunteers play with new ways to demonstrate the concept. In the end, Armend never quite gets it, despite seemingly endless attempts to frame it differently for him—Pirozzi even solicits the help of this reporter and former teacher for some fresh ideas. By the time O’Neil-Pirozzi announces the session’s end, he has struggled for over half an hour trying to grasp the concept. Rather than showing relief at the break, he groans, “Awww!”

Later, one of the students working with Armend, Lynne Crispo, a third-year speech language and pathology student reflects on working with him. She says that she has been impressed by just how much Armend wants to learn. “He’s so excited and interested in everything that you are doing.” After the session, Crispo brainstormed with her peers and O’Neil-Pirozzi about different approaches they might try with Armend next time they visit. That is, if he is still there.

O’Neil-Pirozzi’s experiences working with children living in shelter led her to suspect that homelessness itself might put children at risk for language development delays and literacy delays, but she was unable to find much research on the subject. Following up on her hunch with her own research, she has found preliminary evidence that she says confirms her suspicions. She says early language and literacy delays can lead to educational challenges and failures later in school. She is currently seeking additional participants to include in her study.

Additionally, O’Neil-Pirozzi believes that parents living in shelters also have a higher risk for language disorders than the general population. “We know that there is a higher incidence of depression amongst adults living in shelter and depression can effect cognitive and language abilities. Some of the parents are victims of domestic violence and we know that traumatic brain injury can impact language literacy cognition. Further, they may have had their own language and literacy difficulties as children which could have continued into adulthood.” O’Neil-Pirozzi says she encourages parents to participate in the program with their child and may offer to help connect the family to external services through the shelter case managers.

Armend’s mother, we’ll call her Nora Bizi to protect her privacy, says she is grateful for O’Neil-Pirozzi and her volunteers’ work with Armend. An Albanian national, Bizi says she learned English from watching television. She says that watching O’Neil-Pirozzi with the children has helped her learn to be patient when working with Armend. “This is a beautiful teacher,” she says.

Pirozzi believes that for many families for whom English is a second language, the storytelling groups can be just as helpful for the parents as the children. “There are some parents who I think are actually learning English themselves from our storytelling groups,” she says while walking back to her lab.

For other parents the storytelling group represents a precious hour of supervised care. The shelter has rules about parents remaining with children at all times unless they are participating in a structured program. Sebastian’s mother, Catherine Green, says that she takes advantage of that time to catch up on some homework for her criminal justice classes at Bunker Hill Community College.

As for the student volunteers, they gain more than professional experience. O’Neil-Pirozzi says that many volunteers come to the program with misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness and the circumstances that might have led them to that situation. She says that she teaches her students that the leading causes of homelessness among single men and women is very different from the factors at play in family homelessness.

“I love seeing them reconfigure or reboot.” O’Neil-Pirozzi says. “That’s been an awesome experience for them and for me.”

NOELLE SWAN is a freelance reporter.

Photo: Noah Fournle





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