Lessons of homelessness
On streets as a child, volunteer makes connections with kids in same boat
Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 4:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 11:57 a.m.
Building paper "Me Burgers" is a great learning tool for homeless children at Petaluma's Mary Isaak Center.
And also for volunteer teacher Nicole Preucil, who leads the self-awareness exercise at the Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, center on Hopper Street.
"Each part of the 'burger' is something unique about yourself," explains Preucil, 21. The lettuce may symbolize a favorite color, for example, the cheese an enjoyable thing they've done with their families.
As the children load their "burgers" with stacks of condiments, they discover new things about themselves.
Preucil grew up homeless in Fresno with her mother, twin brother, two older twin brothers and sometimes their father. Leading the homeless children through the hamburger exercise also makes her see things about her own life.
"I'm learning as much as they are," she said from the three-story center. "I've learned that I loved to go grocery shopping with my family. Who knew? Something so simple."
But touchpoints like that, even seemingly simple ones, are important for homeless kids, said Carrie Hess. She directs COTS' children's programs and supervises Preucil.
"Nicole has made their experience something they look forward to while they're here," Hess said. "I've heard kids say, 'I want to come back forever.' That has a lot to do with the connections they make."
COTS requires all parents in transitional housing to take a 12-week intensive parenting course called Kids First. It is designed to help them improve their long-term ability to lead, nurture and support their children.
Most clients have been poorly parented, but that's how they learned to parent, Hess said. Many also lack a fundamental knowledge of child development.
Preucil, a fourth-year psychology student at Sonoma State University, now understands some of the choices her mother made and the family dynamics created by moving from place to place, sometimes not knowing where they would sleep.
She broke out of her family's homeless situation when she was 16. When she left, her mother was living in an abandoned auto shop.
"I believe, in her heart, she did the best with what she knows," Preucil said of her mother.
Preucil graduated from a college prep high school program in Fresno with nearly straight A's and was accepted to several California universities. Because of its size, intimacy and locale, SSU was her top choice.
Last year she also was accepted into a study-abroad program and studied in France.
"That gave me a lot of patience," she said. "No one understood me, and it helped me gain a lot of confidence."
Preucil returned to Sonoma County wanting to devote more time to helping others. An internship with COTS and its homeless support programs was a perfect fit, she said.
"I decided if there was any volunteer work I'd be good at, it would be this," she said.
She now volunteers at the homeless center's front desk and with a COTS tutoring program in Rohnert Park.
"I thought I knew a lot about homelessness," she said, laughing. "I now understand where my mom was coming from, and how kids are affected. It's like connecting the dots."
When Preucil visits her family now, she doesn't judge or preach, even though she now knows a better life.
"I think what I'm doing is showing them," she said. "It's not like I'm some extraordinary person. (It's more like) 'I'm just like you, and you can do this.' "
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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