At a homeless shelter up in Harlem, a little girl watches as a woman hands out pajamas to other children. When a pair is handed to her, she doesn’t take them. Instead, she asks, “What is it?” She had never owned a pair of PJs in her life.
It can be hard for most of us to imagine a childhood like this, one handled by the Administration for Children’s Services. “Some of these kids have never gotten anything new, anything that’s clean or that fits them,” explains Genevieve Pitturo, founder of the Pajama Program, a nonprofit that brings books and pajamas to children in need. “They’re brought into these places with nothing but the clothes on their back, which are often dirty, or hand-me-downs that don’t fit.”
Pitturo’s Pajama Program just moved into a beautiful new space on East 39th street. On June 25th, children from Hour Children (named for the one-hour visits they are allowed to have with their incarcerated parents) filed in for story hour and plopped down on a bright carpet decorated with pictures. Excitedly, they called out the names of characters painted on the walls: Elmo, Mickey Mouse, Snow White.
Amye Rosenberg, a children’s book writer, illustrator and founder of Zany Angel Projects, kicked off the party with some story time and a drawing lesson. Then the children went around introducing themselves and saying what they liked most about summer.
“I love swimming under water and coming back up,” said Brayden.
In truth, few of these children have ever gotten the chance to go swimming — Brayden included. Many of the children are “processed,” and live in institutional buildings. Because they come from these bigger, colder group homes, Pitturo says she makes an extra effort to help give the space a warm, homey feel. She calls the reading hour a “party” so that it doesn’t feel like a “school thing they have to do.”
Some kids hide when it’s time to leave, not wanting the fun to end. Others are more withdrawn, coming in with cuts and bruises. Many have parents who are either dead or in prison. Often, children will make believe that they do have parents when they don’t – that they go to the park with them, and that they go on play dates.
Books line the shelves of the Book Nook, which is new and beautiful, full of pastel colors and immaculately clean.
Brayden grabs “Goodnight Gorilla” and suggests that we “take a picture walk through the book” first, looking only at the illustrations.
“Oh my god, look outside!” he says suddenly, running to the window and admiring the center’s new backyard. Before returning, he grabs two more books and asks me to let him know when we get to “his part.” Not halfway through, he grabs more, wanting to read as many as possible before the hour is up. Brayden lives in a group home, but says he lives with his mother in a big white building by a park. “Sometimes I go to Rueben’s house, and sometimes we play, but sometimes I like to just relax,” he says.
Halfway through story hour, a tray of juice boxes and little bags of Famous Amos cookies are handed out to the children. Before they leave, Brayden and the others get their pajamas, which are wrapped in a bow. They put them on over their clothes, and march outside, hugging the book they chose, and are allowed to keep.
How much good can an hour-long reading party and some pajamas do? Pitturo believes much.
It helps them realize that someone cares for them, she says, that someone actually sees them and is kind enough to give them something that represents comfort and safety.
“Hopefully they’ll be reminded at bedtime when they put on their PJs,” she says, “and carry that feeling with them.”