Why I Do What I Do
Sue Heilman, executive director, Horizons Initiative

What’s the richest gift that society can give to homeless families? Sue Heilman says it’s a chance at self-sufficiency for parents and access to a safe, nurturing environment for their children. Heilman is the executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Horizons Initiative, an organization that provides early education and child-care programs to homeless children and support services to their families, including job training and parenting workshops. Heilman’s program installed and staffed playrooms in 55 family shelters, serving more than 600 homeless children and 400 parents each week.

Q. What first drew you to the Horizons Initiative 12 years ago?

A. I understood the importance of the early years in human development through raising my own two children, ages 3 and 8 at the time, and I had also worked with some homeless youth at my previous job.

Q: Has being a mother affected your work with children?

A. Being a mother helps me empathize with what it must be like to be a mother with several young children and be without a home. Working with homeless families every day has certainly affected my perspective in terms of what my own family needs, especially during this era of extreme consumerism.

Q. Can you recall the most touching moment you’ve had with a child?

A. One of the children we served enrolled with us when he was about 6 months old, while he and his mother were living in an area family shelter. I was occasionally filling in as van driver when ours was absent, and I remember this child because, when I would try to put him in the car seat in the van, his body was extremely rigid, and he wouldn’t make any eye contact with anyone, and he didn’t make any sounds at all. It was like he really wasn’t there. But gradually, over the ensuing months, he started to relax, he started smiling and engaging with me and the other children and, of course, with his teachers. When he left our program as a 4-year-old, he lived with his mother in permanent housing and was ready to go on to public school. He gave everyone a big hug and was the star of the classroom.

Q. How do you think your job has changed you as a person?

A. I am more patient, more tolerant, more understanding. Change takes time, and there is no exact recipe for how to transform a family from the experience of homelessness to one of stability and self-sufficiency. There are many ingredients that help, but it really takes an individualized approach.