Education

Sacramento school for homeless children gets dramatic makeover

Children who take classes at the Mustard Seed School, located on the grounds of the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex in Sacramento, get their first look at a new space on Wednesday that includes new computers, iPads and “dream boxes” containing costumes and equipment designed to inspire them toward professional careers.
Children who take classes at the Mustard Seed School, located on the grounds of the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex in Sacramento, get their first look at a new space on Wednesday that includes new computers, iPads and “dream boxes” containing costumes and equipment designed to inspire them toward professional careers. aseng@sacbee.com

It was a day for homeless kids to dare to dream of becoming chefs, bankers, physicians and athletes.

On a soggy, blustery morning at Sacramento’s Mustard Seed School, an emergency educational program for children whose families are homeless or transient, Monica Perez, 8, put a scrub suit over her Hello Kitty shirt and declared, “I’m a doctor!”

Monica and dozens of other Mustard Seed students got their first glimpse Wednesday of a newly renovated section of the modest schoolhouse where they attend classes while their families are bedding down in shelters, in motels or on the sofas of friends and relatives. Inside a building that once served as a wash house for homeless men, children flocked into a bright new room with skylights, vast storage spaces, a flat-screen TV and “dream boxes” that held books, costumes and equipment associated with careers that organizers assured them are within their reach.

“These are kids who are living day-to-day, just trying to survive, and they may not be thinking about something bigger and better in the future,” said architect Brian Crilly, one of 35 business and community leaders who helped make the $60,000 renovation happen. “We want to help inspire them to do that.”

The project comes courtesy of the 2014 class of Leadership Sacramento, a program of the Sacramento Metro Chamber, which this year chose Mustard Seed for its annual community improvement project. Almost all the materials and labor for the project were donated, Crilly said. Mustard Seed also received a $45,000 check that will be used for supplies and other upgrades of the schoolhouse on the downtown campus of the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex.

“This is a miracle,” said Loaves executive director Sister Libby Fernandez.

Mustard Seed, which opened in 1989, is a temporary school for youngsters whose circumstances prevent them from regularly attending public schools. Some lack immunizations or birth certificates. Many of their parents lack transportation or money to pay for school supplies. One of Mustard Seed’s goals is to help families gain stability and steer their children toward public schools.

Recent reports suggest California is home to a growing number of homeless children. During the 2012-13 school year, schools reported nearly 270,000 homeless students, an increase of about 8 percent over the previous year, according to a report by the California Homeless Youth Project. The Sacramento region was among the areas with the largest number of homeless public school students, according to the group. Five percent of the student body reported being without permanent housing at some point during the school year, compared with 4.3 percent statewide and 2 percent nationally.

Angela Hassell, Mustard Seed’s director, said the school typically has about 40 students, ages 3 to 15, who attend classes for weeks or months before moving on.

Sacramento has only a few shelters that serve homeless families, so most Mustard Seed children and their parents wind up in motels or bunking in the homes of friends or relatives, said Hassell. “A lot of our families are night-to-night,” she said.

Mustard Seed gives children a small measure of stability in an otherwise chaotic life.

On Wednesday, youngsters took a break from their morning classes to celebrate the opening of their new learning center, with its freshly painted white walls, colorful carpets and dream boxes. Slamson, the Sacramento Kings mascot, helped slice a big red ribbon across the building’s door before the children raced in and dug into boxes labeled Chef, Banker, Builder, Farmer and a host of other professions.

Monica Perez, who has been taking classes at Mustard Seed for about a month, made a beeline for a box labeled Doctor. Inside, she found a scrub suit, complete with hair net and face mask, a laminated name tag that she promptly etched with her name, and a medical kit that contained a stethoscope and bandages, among other supplies.

“I’m the doctor, because I want to help people,” Monica told her friend Lita Kerwin, 13. Lita offered no argument. She wants to be a nurse, she said. Other youngsters donned chef jackets, hard hats and hockey masks.

After an hour or so, the hoopla died down. The mascot and the luminaries left. The costumes and equipment were put back in their places. The room grew quiet.

And the children of Mustard Seed, armed with their dreams, zipped their jackets, pulled hoods over their heads and walked out into the cold drizzle.

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

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