by Lori D.R. Wiggins
When Kathy Johnson needs a woosah moment, she retreats to a room at Oak City Cares where the floor resembles grass and a gravel-look path divides the room. The walls are toned-down hues of blue, green and peach, coloring sweet country scenes. “It’s the most fun place in the building,” says Johnson, executive director at the nonprofit.
The room isn’t really for her, though. It’s a place for kids to get away from the adult problems that accompany homelessness. Here, a 3D car tire spins and textured tails of a squirrel and horse invite touch. There are also soft tree stumps, animals to ride on, books to read and an enclosed play area. “It’s nice for families to have a fun and quiet space to be,” Johnson says. “Walking down the street with a suitcase and children in tow, there’s not really a place you can go and just be.”
The room was designed with the help of The Kaleidoscope Project, a community initiative dedicated to “turning places kids go into places kids grow.” Founded in 2014 and funded by the John Rex Foundation, Kaleidoscope pairs organizations with creatives to design places for children to play, learn and socialize. So far, Kaleidoscope has partnered with a dozen organizations to complete indoor and outdoor spaces, with projects underway for places like Family Promise and Wake County Regional Centers in Wake Forest and Zebulon. The goal is to create positive spaces—including public housing common areas, emergency housing environments and more—that will give kids the tools they need to navigate tough times with optimism and confidence.
“Everything in this room is intentional,” says Melissa Forde, Kaleidoscope’s community engagement coordinator. “We want to create an environment where children and families can come in and feel safe, play together and spend time together.” Finding these safe spaces can be tough for homeless children, many of whom also harbor trauma from contributing factors like joblessness, domestic violence and mental illness. “When people think about homelessness, they rarely think about kids,” says Johnson. “We had a partner whose focus was providing a space for families, and understanding that children in these situations have experienced trauma.”
Kaleidoscope creates diverse spaces that incorporate nature while fostering safety, accessibility and inclusion. “These benefit all economic groups; every single child,” says project director Angie Welsh. Each project they take on is tailored to match the needs of the place and the people it serves. “The work we do in physical spaces is a gateway to improving relationships,” says Welsh. At Washington Terrace, an affordable housing development in Raleigh, Kaleidoscope created a pocket park with picnic tables, grills and a couple of benches. There are ample walkways lined by boulders to climb on, tall grass that invites exploration of nature’s textures and even taller trees for shade. Its accessibility is less obvious, but just as intentional: wide spaces between the benches and picnic tables that have a side with no seat, perfect for a wheelchair.
DHIC, the development’s owner, will fund additions to the park to preserve the culture and history of Washington Terrace, says community services coordinator LaTonya McKoy. Once it’s complete, the park will have hopscotch painted on the sidewalk, a little free library and a butterfly house painted by local artists, says McKoy. Washington Terrace resident Krisse Meeks already has noticed how the park creates a sense of community for her children, ages nine to 16, and her neighbors. “It’s really inviting,” says Meeks, who lives within sight of the park. “I’m really interested to see it blossom, to see it come alive. We’re excited to come home.”