Nine-month-old Keon crawled in the sunshine. Three-year-old Jada picked dandelions from the yard. In all, a dozen children of homeless women played on the 6,000-square-foot lawn at the Women's Empowerment center downtown.
In January, Women's Empowerment moved its homeless program from a facility on industrial North C Street to the former Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance building on North A Street.
The new space is three times larger, and the featured attraction is the enclosed yard that gives homeless kids a chance to play on the lawn.
"Something as simple as a place to play can have such a deep impact in their life," said Women's Empowerment director Lisa Culp. "Even if their life right now is crazy and chaotic and tumultuous, they can be here and experience nurturing and enrichment and love."
Volunteers kept watch as the children explored the play area, kicking rubber balls and blowing bubbles.
Ieshia Dyer's 2-year-old son scampered to the fence to marvel at a train rolling on tracks near the playground.
"He loves it here," said Dyer, 35, who is finishing an eight-week program at Women's Empowerment.
Unemployed for three years, Dyer said the job training gives her a way to leave selling drugs behind.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, the 1.6 million American children who experience homelessness each year are sick four times more often than other children and are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.
Women's Empowerment started as a program of the charity Loaves and Fishes in 2001 and became a separate nonprofit three years later, Culp said.
It has graduated more than 1,000 women from its recovery and readiness programs, and 97 of its graduates secured jobs last year, she said.
Women's Empowerment moved into Department of Human Assistance facilities as the county agency cut back on its homeless programs to save costs.
The private-public partnership Sacramento Steps Forward receives federal grants to coordinate homeless services, and Women's Empowerment reported that it received about $660,000 in grants and gifts last year.
Sacramento Steps Forward reported there were 604 households in Sacramento County with homeless adults and children when it conducted a count of the county's homeless population in 2011.
Women's Empowerment works with more than 800 volunteers and partners with businesses to help women find housing and provide for their children, Culp said.
Cristo Rey High School students help with child care, Intel donates computers and gives literacy classes. UC Davis offers certificates and local businesses offer to hire graduates, she said.
"I know I'm gonna make it, and that's huge for me," said Dyer. She said she takes public transit with her son from transitional housing seven miles from Women's Empowerment.
She said she was already struggling with addiction and caring for two children when her 2-year-old was born. Dyer said the child care at Women's Empowerment helped her regain her confidence and he looks forward to playing with friends each day.
"It betters me, but I never thought it would have the same effect on my son," she said.
Call The Bee's Dan Hill, (916) 321-1067.