Homelessness brings with it challenges that wouldn’t even occur to most people.
It’s not just a need for shelter, food, and clothing. What if you are a parent and your family is without reliable housing? How do you get your kids to school?
One local nonprofit, Sacramento Loaves and Fishes, strives not just to provide services and resources to people experiencing homelessness, but to be an oasis for all who need it. That’s why one of the many services and programs they provide is an emergency school called Mustard Seed.
Mustard Seed school serves kids ages 3 to 15 while their families look for permanent housing solutions. It began in one room, as activities to keep the kids of families using the day services busy and safe. They now have their own cottages on the Loaves and Fishes campus downtown, and provide a Montessori-style school day and meals for a number of children that varies every day. Classes are grouped by pre-K to kindergarten, first through third grades, fourth through fifth, and then sixth through eighth grades. As program director Lucia Vega describes it, “We are a temporary school filling in a gap.” Most kids use the school for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, based on their needs.
For the kids, Mustard Seed is a lifeline, offering counseling, transportation to appointments like the dentist or optometrist, transportation to and from school and even laundry services. The cottages also include a sleeping room where students are allowed to rest if they need sleep more than school. Some of the cottages have kitchens; classes might bake cookies together. All are designed to be a safe, home-like space with caring and understanding staff. Mustard Seed also provides as many field trips as it can, to places like Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm, the Crocker Art Museum, the capitol building, ice skating or an aquatic center.
Stacy Johnson, a teacher at Mustard Seed, said, “Parents breathe easier during the day, knowing their kids are safe.”
For the kids, it can mean a lot to know that there are others in the same situation.
“As a teacher, I teacher younger children. Sometimes I might ask where they slept last night. They see their own lives reflected in each other,“ Johnson said.
Both the school itself and sharing it with other kids in the same kinds of situations can cut the feelings of isolation that often come with homelessness.
“We have to meet the kids where they’re at,” says Vega. When new kids come to the school, “we do testing to see what the kids need more of, and work on that.”
The younger grades lean more toward Montessori-style of learning, and the upper grades might be more traditional. Teachers at Mustard Seed all come from different backgrounds, and some were previously volunteers that wanted to be able to do more for the kids.
There are many opportunities to volunteer with the school as well. Breakfast and lunch are made and served by volunteers. Some volunteers are able to help in the classrooms. There are also options for volunteers or volunteer groups to do donation drives for needed supplies at the school.
The school is working on a toy drive for the kids for Christmas. Each year they give a bag of gifts to the families for each child; the parents are able to wrap and provide them for the kids. They accept monetary donations, toy donations, and have an Amazon Wish List set up where people can make purchases and have them sent directly to the Loaves and Fishes warehouse. More information and links are available at sacloaves.org/needs-list.
Before the pandemic, the school typically was helping about 30 students a day. Mustard Seed saw lower numbers during the pandemic, and is back to around 30 students now. Of course, numbers will vary a lot depending on the current need, and even one new family can make a big difference if they have a lot of kids. The highest number Vega and Johnson remember seeing was around 60. Luckily, the staff likes to be busy and helping.
No day will be the same, and plans can be hard to make.
“You need to be ready for one student or ten,” Vega said. “It takes flexibility.”
While Mustard Seed generally follows the schedule of other schools, they close much less often. Holiday breaks are often just a day or two. After all, if they close, where will the kids go? It’s another way they are more than just a school.
“We try to be an oasis for the kids. You can feel that when you’re here, whether it’s in the classroom or the courtyard,” Vega said.
To learn more about the school and the many other programs provided by Sacramento Loaves and Fishes, go to sacloaves.org.