Thinking inside the box

December 07, 2022
A top-down view of two calm boxes, filled with squeeze toys, stuffed animals, bendy toys, pop-its and more
Inside the "calm boxes" are all sorts of multi-sensory toys, from Pop-its to stuffed animals, that help children self regulate their emotions. Photo provided by Alana Colestock

­Raising children is hard under the best of circumstances. But take away the core – the one part that most parents probably take for granted – the roof over your head, and the idea can seem downright impossible. 

Homelessness affects more than 2 million people in the United States, with 4,000 of them right here in South Carolina. Research has shown that the homeless population is three to six times more likely to experience illness, four times more likely to be hospitalized and three to four times more likely to die prematurely. And for the ones with children, those devastating trends radiate outward, ensnaring the next generation in all the same statistics. 

Headshot of Dr. Lauerer 
Dr. Lauerer

Joy Lauerer, DNP, an advanced practice psychiatric-mental health nurse and associate professor in MUSC’s College of Nursing, has seen a steady increase in the number of homeless parents in Charleston. Once a week, she works with patients at One80 Place, a local non-profit organization that provides the homeless with access to permanent, adequate and affordable housing as well as medical care. 

“Every family has a different story,” Lauerer said, “but if there’s one common theme, it’s that many of these parents may not have had good role models for parenting, so they had to teach themselves how to raise their children. They’re healing their own demons. So, they just don’t know what to do, because many never saw what good parenting looked like.”

Nearly 80% of her families at One80 Place have mental health or substance abuse problems. As a result, a disproportionate number of those patients’ children experience anxiety or have behavioral issues. 

“These parents come in and they’re so desperate. And these kids, they can feel that,” she said. “So often we’re focused on the adults. But the kids need our help too.” 

Lauerer noticed that the majority of the children who came in only had the clothes on their backs, nothing else. They certainly didn’t have any toys. That observation led her to an idea – one that recently became a reality – to help them better cope with the range of emotions they might be going through. 

Her solution was simple and elegant. She called it a “calm box.” Inside was a range of toys to help kids better manage stressful times. Squeeze balls. Fidget spinners. Pop-its. Stuffed animals. The kind of multisensory toys that research has shown help improve a child’s health, social well-being as well as ability to cope with strong emotions. 

MUSC BSN student Alanah Colestock volunteered to assist Lauerer – who provides the funding for the project out of her own pocket – with putting the boxes together, each of which is made specifically for a particular child.

“It can be really humbling meeting with these kids,” Colestock said. “When they stay at One80 Place, they might have a bunk bed, maybe a table, a drape for a door – that’s it. That’s their life. So for me to be able to go to the dollar store or Target and shop for some toys – the kind I had tons of as a kid and didn’t really give much thought, but for them might be the nicest thing they’ve ever had – it’s such an awesome feeling.” 

So when Lauerer is working with the parents, Colestock gets to be with the kids. Once she’s gotten to know the child and determined what might best suit their needs and personality, she puts the box together and presents it to them. The first time they see it, Colestock explains to them what makes it special and the powers it holds – it’s meant to be used when they need to let off some steam or calm down, not as everyday toys, she said – then she watches them explore its contents. In addition to the box, parents also receive a cue card developed by Lauerer, filled with ideas on how to best teach their children emotional regulation skills.

“A lot of these kids, they may have ADHD or other mental health issues and it’s hard for them to self-regulate even when their mothers are there,” Colestock said. “But when I get out the box, they become entranced. It’s really amazing.”

Though just a small part of the range of care that Lauerer and her team provide to the homeless population at One80 Place, it seems to be making a difference in the kids’ lives. 

“Their faces say it all,” Colestock said. “To watch them light up when the box comes out, you can’t help but feel like you’re having a positive impact.”