Rebecca Damsell knows what it's like to struggle raising a family.
A single mother of four, she faced many challenges years ago as she brought up her children. Now a grandmother, she is helping other families in need.
Damsell, who lives in Haverhill, volunteers at the Lazarus House homeless shelter in Lawrence and plays with children there each week. She said not only do the kids get enjoyment from seeing a friendly, familiar face, but it gives their parents a break.
"Any little bit of help that I can do for an hour or two each week so that parents can have some free time each week is one of the greatest benefits," Damsell said. "I was lucky not to be homeless, but I was alone raising four kids. I know how hard it can be, and I wish that someone would have given me that kind of relief."
Damsell is a playspace activity leader with the Horizons for Homeless Children organization. She is responsible for thinking of new activities for the children, so she can improve the lives of homeless youngsters and their families.
Last week, Damsell received the 2012 PAL of the Year Award. She was chosen from about 1,500 PAL members. Damsell was honored with her award at a reception at the Westin Copley Place in Boston.
"It was nerve wracking," Damsell said of the event. "There were so many people there that I almost walked out.''
But she stayed, and was happy she did.
"I was really proud to receive it, and I think that I have done a lot to deserve it," she said.
Damsell is also a PAL mentor who helps new PALs get acclimated to their positions. She is a member of the PAL Council who helps with outreach and maintenance of playspaces, and volunteers at the organization's statewide events.
Damsell said she did not expect to have this kind of commitment to the non-profit organization when she became a member in 2008.
"It was kind of an accident how I joined," she said. "I was at a farmers market with someone I worked with. That person was signing all these sign-up sheets, but I don't think they had any intention of really joining. I signed one of them and it ended up being to be a PAL and I've been one ever since."
In addition to entertaining children, Damsell also volunteers by cleaning up the playspaces, stuffing envelopes as part of fundraisers and volunteering at fundraising dinners.
Damsell knew she wanted to be supportive of children when she signed up to be a PAL, but she had no idea how much dedication she would eventually put into it.
"I just thought it would be good," she said. "I knew I liked kids and kids seem to really like me, too. I knew I wasn't there to save the world, but I thought I would help enlighten the kids, while giving their parents a break."
Damsell was presented with the award by HHC President and CEO Asa Fanelli. She was joined at the presentation by her son Mark Damsell and her granddaughters Danielle and Valerie Damsell.
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