Douna Hunter interviewed by Hands On Atlanta

Pajamas, Books, and Sleep Equity: Volunteers Creating Healthy Habits with Pajama Program

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Standing in the Pajama Program space feels like being at sleepover at a Barnes and Noble – a true haven for a child’s imagination. Here, program staff and volunteers help children and families establish their nighttime routines, including bedtime stories; the (proven) theory being that how a child performs in the classroom is actually determined the night before, in how well they sleep.

Hands On Atlanta too has a special focus on ensuring all students get the most out of their education, and is proud to partner with Pajama Program in this work. A conversation with Douna Hunter, Director of Programs in Atlanta at Pajama Program, reveals how their organization is improving educational outcomes for kids in Atlanta, and how you can help them as a volunteer.

TL;DR – Sign up here to volunteer as a reader.

Claire, Hands On Atlanta: Many of us think the Pajama Program is about books and jammies, but it’s really about a much larger concept – sleep equity. Can you talk to us about the importance of a good nighttime routine and what that can mean for a child?

Douna, Pajama Program: Our mission is to promote equitable access to sleep, so all children can thrive. Sleep is up there with exercise and nutrition when it comes to health, but for some reason it just doesn’t get talked about much. Without that foundation of sleep, it’s so much more difficult for students to learn and to turn short term memories into long term memories. It’s easy to think: ‘sleep, everybody does it, what’s the big deal?’ but we’re notoriously sleep deprived in this country. We hear all the time, kids are coming to school sleepy – even the Pre-K kids. Science tells us that parents just don’t know how many hours their kids really need. Healthy sleep starts with a good nighttime routine. We have a triangle of support: programming for students when they visit the center, resources and workshops for parents, and professional development for early educators.

“It’s easy to think: ‘sleep, everybody does it, what’s the big deal?’ but we’re notoriously sleep deprived in this country.

Claire: Well, that’s how you truly tackle a problem, head on… by providing support at every level. When the kids visit, they must just love being in this space. It feels like being at a sleepover.

Douna: Our space is magical, it’s full of bright colors and lovely books that are representative of the children that we serve in this community. It’s also a space for volunteers to share those stories with the children that visit that center. A focus of ours is on creating ‘caring connections’. And so that’s how we use our space and our volunteers, in promoting that access – giving our caregivers and community partners resources, like information, pajamas and books.

Claire: I love that concept – because the value of reading is so much more than learning what’s written in the book, it’s about a shared experience. So how do volunteers help with that?

Douna: Volunteers come in and read stories with the kids. Those ‘caring connections’, and the impact of sharing, is what we’re going for. So, for us, it’s not about teaching grammar. We have classrooms come in with 25 kids, and it’s difficult for their one teacher to connect with each one of those children, full time. So here, we can create those connections, and we can teach them about healthy routine. Sharing stories at night is a very important to that routine. It creates space for those connections and preparing the brain for dreams and creativity to happen, and healthy sleep to take place. We want to ensure they’re turning off those devices! Volunteers demonstrate that here. And, caring connections with those outside of their family and caregivers, promotes healthy relationship building with others.

“Those ‘caring connections’, and the impact of sharing, is what we’re going for.

Pajama Program focuses on kids K-2, and that’s a critical age for learning. They’re absorbing everything around them. Tell us more about the kiddos!

Douna: Pajama Program is a partner of Atlanta Public Schools as well as several county school districts, and kids get to our center on field trips. We see around 3000 kids per year. When we first opened in Atlanta, nearly 6 years ago!, we started getting in touch with local districts. Through mostly word of mouth, people began to realize this is a wonderful, free field trip for students that makes a big difference for the kids. We know a lot of students are going to school very tired, and Pajama Program hopes to change that.

Claire: I heard that there was a student who said this was a better field trip than the Aquarium (!) so the kids must really love coming here, huh? It’s easy to see why!

Douna: YES! He said ‘This is the best day of my life!’ You know, kids who are 6 and 7 can be a little extra and we love it. I think it feels more personal when the kids come in and see the bright colors and the bean bags and the tents and they think, ‘Wow, what is this place? What’s going to happen?’ and they feel the energy and the love here.

Claire: I’ve had a lot of interest from volunteers to support you all. What can we do?

Douna: First – give your time! Come to the center and read, or help fold pajamas. There’s always work! Nonprofits are famous for having a lot of needs, especially smaller organizations like us. The second is donations – we see around 3000 children a year, and each child leaves with a new set of pajamas and a book. Volunteers can donate these or host a drive – we particularly need sizes 6-12 in pajamas. And lastly, let’s talk more about sleep! Parents, find resources on our website, and ask your kid’s schools how they’re talking about sleep.

Help us support good nights for good days for all children, everywhere.