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Washingtonians of the Year 2012: Jamila Larson

Providing vital play for homeless kids.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

It’s no mystery why poor children struggle in school, says Jamila Larson. “Poverty is stressful,” says the cofounder and executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. “When a child experiences a stressful event—say, being evicted—his body is flooded with cortisol.”

Cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone, erodes the area of the brain regulating memory. When stress is the norm, kids can have trouble retaining what they learn. But when their brains produce serotonin—created by exercise and feelings of mastery, among other things—the cortisol’s effect is negated. The problem is that homelessness steals things that can raise children’s serotonin, such as the chance to learn games or even chase each other around the house.

The Playtime Project assembles and staffs playrooms in DC homeless shelters, aiming to create the brain chemistry kids thrive on. “They need a lot more than play,” Larson says, “but while they wait for essentials like housing, their childhood marches on.”

The project, founded in 2003, focuses on fun, though learning looms in the background. Larson and her staff take kids on field trips—to skate or visit the White House. They reward teens for attending tutoring and for raising their grades, ensuring their return week after week. And an army of volunteers shows up to play.

Larson knows what kids want because she asks them. She knows what they need thanks to years as a social worker. And having just had a son, she’s always observing the power of play: “Kids don’t sit on the couch and tell you their problems; they communicate through play and art. To be denied those is a human-rights issue.”

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