Editorials

School embraces homeless children

Clara McDonald, 9, raises her hand during lunch at Mustard Seed School, a nonprofit private school that has been educating Sacramento’s homeless children for 26 years and helping many of them transition to public schools.
Clara McDonald, 9, raises her hand during lunch at Mustard Seed School, a nonprofit private school that has been educating Sacramento’s homeless children for 26 years and helping many of them transition to public schools. rbyer@sacbee.com

My wife, a docent at Crocker Art Museum, came home once very excited by the wide-eyed exuberance of a group of youngsters who had never been to an art museum before. She was especially impressed to discover that these animated students, brimming with questions and comments, came from Mustard Seed School, a part of Loaves & Fishes that feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless.

This extraordinary nonprofit private school has been educating Sacramento’s homeless children for 26 years and helping many of them transition to public schools.

Liana Luna was homeless eight years ago with a 3-year-old daughter and enrolled her in Mustard Seed’s preschool class. Today that seventh-grader is thriving in the public schools and her mother is working full time as Mustard Seed’s energetic outreach director. She puts homeless families in touch with social services and gives their children a ride to school and medical appointments.

The school eagerly embraces these children and provides them with a safe, structured environment. The dedicated teachers and volunteers nurture their students with personal and positive reinforcement on a daily basis. What’s more, these youngsters receive some crucial continuity and stability that could help motivate their families to stop moving from place to place and settle down.

To appreciate Mustard Seed’s several challenges, one needs to spend some time at the school and watch the compassionate teachers, staff and students interact amid what volunteer Rosemary O’Grady lovingly characterizes as “organized chaos.” During her 30 years as an elementary teacher in the city schools, she’s seen just about everything and marvels at how this private school meets the complex emotional needs of 50-plus children while educating them.

Bryan Gross, who took charge of Mustard Seed this year, readily agrees that school days can seem chaotic at times. Yet he cannot imagine doing anything else. “There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of helping a child read a book,” he says. “Or seeing them so happy to get homework.”

Gross and his staff concede that their closeness with kids can be emotionally wrenching over time. “The hardest part of my day,” he says, “is watching them leave at day’s end with a parent, lugging a sleeping bag and their belongings” headed to an uncertain destination.

“It’s tough not to take those memories home with you,” a staffer adds.

Leah O’Loughlin is among the many college graduates who have spent a year at Mustard Seed as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Program. While noting the learning curve is tough, she’s come to love it here and connects with students. Her caring manner with five energetic preschoolers on the playground is manifested by hugs and reassurances for crying tykes whenever they tumble.

Caring for others, especially those in need, is the essence of Thanksgiving. Sacramentans have generously sustained Loaves & Fishes for 32 years. They’ve been no less supportive of Mustard Seed as the school’s enrollment has nearly doubled this year. Gross and his staff are grateful for the many donors who have provided food and clothing to the school. He’s hoping for warm items as winter approaches, specifically for older children.

The biblical parable reminds that a tiny mustard seed can produce a strong, resilient tree that provides shelter and sustenance for small birds. Thus it’s altogether fitting that this small school is providing homeless children refuge so they may become stronger and flourish.

Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Contact him at miller396@comcast.net.

Donations may be dropped off at Loaves & Fishes at North C and 13th streets, or mailed to Mustard Seed School, 1351 N. C St., Sacramento, CA 95811.

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