The woman perches on a kiddy-sized plastic chair, cradling a four-month-old boy and rubbing circles on his small back as he finishes his bottle. His lips part in a small burp of contentment.
In this small, sunny building — tucked behind Miami-Dade's public hospital and next to an empty lot that serves as an unofficial homeless encampment — Maria Campos spends every Saturday dispensing her wares: hugs, kisses, smiles. And, the most precious of all, her time.
"I give them love, love, love," she says. "I give them kisses and hugs, and I talk to them. I spoil them a little bit. That's what they want: your attention."
At the McLamore Children's Center, Campos is one of about 90 volunteers who help the children feel at home in their temporary quarters, where they can live from a few days to a few months. For some, the center is a bridge back to parents or relatives. For others, it is a pathway to a new home.
Retired after a career in banking and with two grown children, Campos has been coming here once a week for four years to help with the children — who sometimes start calling her Mommy, bringing her to tears. “They just want to be with their families,” she says. “And when you show them love, they love you back. I don’t know if the kids need me or I need them more.”
They come to McLamore, which is run by the southeastern division of the Children’s Home Society, usually as the result of adult problems at home ranging from addicted parents to simple poverty. About 80 children, some just months old, come through McLamore in an average year.
The center, with its boxes of toys, snug beds and cheerful colors, feels like more a home than some of the children have ever known before, says Maggie Dante, executive director. While the children live at the center, staff members make sure they get to their usual schools, minimizing the interruption in their lives.
And when they leave, the children can take their pillows and pajamas and other precious possessions provided to the center through donation drives. Volunteers — and the center always needs more — step in wherever they are needed.
“Many of our children don’t experience safety and security. They live in a chaotic environment where it’s very inconsistent and the structure is not there,” Dante says. “At the McLamore Center, we provide consistency. We provide structure. We provide them the attention that they need until they can get back home or to another safe place.”
Volunteers like Campos give the children the children a sense of warmth and belonging when they need it most, Campos says.
“When the kids come here, I think they need a home,” Campos says. “This is like a home. And if they find someone who cares for them, they feel much better. This is a special place.”