Monday, November 10, 2014

Planning Ahead

 Meet "Russell."  Russell is now a fourth-grader in our program and speaks Cantonese better than anyone else in the program, including staff.  This makes Russell very useful to us, as we have several families with parents who speak only Cantonese or mostly Cantonese with very limited English.  As he is also a very helpful child, he is always willing to jump in and translate when necessary.  He has helped me explain to one parent that our program is full, to another that we had food she could take home, and I stationed him at our "Adopt A Family" table to explain how the program works and how people could sign up for their kids to get presents at Christmas time.One of the mothers who speaks mostly Cantonese told me "His Chinese very good!"  Of course, his favorite thing to translate is when he gets to tell on his little sister, but that's just human nature.

Not too long ago, Russell asked if he could talk to me.  He seemed a little nervous and said he had something important to ask me. He continued, "Bronwyn, I know this is a long time from now, but when I'm in high school... do you think you would maybe hire me?"

It was asked seriously so I responded in kind.  I said, "Well, Russell, you know, I have to interview applicants and you'd have to fill out an application.  But the things I look for are responsibility and hard work and working well with people, so I think you'd have a good chance.  And you already translate for me, so that's been really helpful.  I can't promise you anything, but I think you seem like you'd be a great employee."

He looked incredibly relieved and said he'd apply when he was in ninth grade.  I'd love to have him as an employee.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Partners in Giving

At Harbor House, we are largely funded by private donations.  Consequently, we have fundraising events and demonstrate to donors that we are, in fact, a worthy recipient of their gift.  In fact, one purpose of this blog is so donors can see the impact they are making every day.   I think that transparency is good for the donors.  I also think it's good for the kids of Harbor House to know that these donations allow us to pay for everything, in spite of several people asking if we "shielded" the kids and interns from knowing that people donated to them, as it may reinforce the kids' sense of inequity. 

Practically, it would be hard to conceal:  we bring donors through on tours frequently and children (just like the rest of us) are curious about the people walking through their program.  But it's a conscious choice, not an expedient one.  We do not shield them, we celebrate the donations and use them as examples. I have seen incredible responses from the children when they know that complete strangers want them to have a good program.  The idea that other people, most of whom haven't met them, would like to help them out, thrills them.  Let me explain:

Announcements happen right before devotion time and some of my favorite announcements are about fundraisers and donations.  We talk a lot about all being part of God's family, whether we are related by blood or not. They love to hear of creative ways people help us: supplying cakes for the cakewalk at our carnival, bringing volunteers to clean the house and provide snack, setting up and paying for field trips, tutoring kids right here, and raising money for everything we need.  And the kids are good at thinking of what takes money! When I asked them, the list included "water to flush the toilets, snack you buy us, paying the interns, pencils, field trips, phones to call our parents..." and on and on. 

A recent announcement was fun to share with the kids.  One of our volunteers whom the kids know and love chose to include a request for donations to Harbor House on his wedding registry.  I first explained what a wedding registry is, and then how he and his wife are passing up some extra presents so that people will donate to Harbor House instead.  The kids thought that was amazing and so incredibly generous.  

 But our kids are not only the recipients of generosity.  Although they are primarily low-income, they are themselves very generous people.  They have great hearts and  love to share (most of the time - they are still children) and help each other out.  I have seen countless examples of kids giving pencils or toys to each other, or choosing a prize and passing up their first choice so someone else can have it.  In addition, when we pray for people who have had something difficult happen, the kids often ask if they can make a card or picture for that person.

And that is another reason why I think it is good for the kids to see the generosity that they receive, so they reflect it in their own lives.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Faithful Partner

Every month, Harbor House gets a small check from a World War II veteran with a note saying that he's sorry he can't give more, but he's on a fixed income.  He adds that he's praying for us and wishes us the best.

We invited Gene to come talk to our older students and, much to our excitement, he accepted.  He told the kids about being a paratrooper jumping out of a plane into France on D-Day.  Although they have little knowledge of World War II, they got the idea of what he was telling them and asked questions like if he was scared, if he missed his family, and if he knew people who died (his answer was yes to all three questions).  He showed them a piece of his parachute, which he had kept, and pointed out the bullet hole in it.

The kids saw a picture of American soldiers that had captured a Nazi flag and recognized the symbol on it immediately.  Although they had very little idea of what the Nazi party actually was, they knew that the symbol on the flag was a symbol of hatred and racism and they asked about that.  Gene explained to them that there is no glory in war but that it was necessary to stop a greater evil.

Gene didn't tell us how old he was, but most of these kids' grandparents weren't old enough to be in World War II.  It was an invaluable experience for them to be able to talk to Gene and find out about his, and our country's, history.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Saving the World

I started the training for my school year staff this evening by taking them out to dinner.  I think very highly of my mostly teenage staff, and believe they have one of the most important jobs around.  A favorite moment from the summer was at our staff barbecue when I had the chance to offer affirmations about each one of them.  I am so privileged to work with and direct these young adults, who stand out in their dedication to helping children.

I have never seen another group like the one at Harbor House.  Oakland is extremely diverse, but in my experience, people tend to stay with their group.  When I was teaching, the third graders were so used to being separated by language and ethnicity that an African American boy punched a Mexican American boy in the nose on the first day of school, saying "He ain't supposed to be in my class."  Teachers were constantly on the lookout for racial tensions, not just between students but also between parents and even teachers.  Some students had friends of a different ethnicity, but they were the exceptions and not the rule.
At Harbor House, the kids all play and learn together, and rarely do I see any form of racial tension.  I attribute most of this success to our staff.  This summer, our staff included young adults whose families come from Mexico, Cambodia, Jamaica, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Japan, Burma.  We also had staff who are white, black, and Native and have been in the United States for long enough to make it hard to trace their roots further, as well as biracial staff in any combination you can imagine

.  They were also extremely diverse socioeconomically.  We have teenagers who had been and are currently homeless, staff who share a bedroom with way too many family members, and people who live in very nice houses in tony suburbs.  We have some who went to elite private schools, some who went to enviable public schools, and some who went to schools that I wouldn't want to teach at.  

And they are all equals.  They have their squabbles and their tensions but none of it is about race and none of it is about inequality.  They work together and, even more importantly, they treat all the kids fairly.

School teachers receive a variety of professional development trainings on multiculturalism and race relations.  And yet, I've watched teachers yell at a male black student for running in the hall and then talk sweetly to the Asian female doing the same thing.  I've seen teachers try to trade black students for Pacific Islanders because "they listen and have respect."  Although these young interns have had only a brief workshop I offered at Harbor House, they didn't have these problems.  

I'm not saying that having a teenage staff is always easy, and I take their training seriously.  But in these ways, they have astounded me over and over.  I have never once seen one of my interns give preferential treatment to a student of their own ethnicity.  I have never once seen one of them treat a parent differently because of their race.  Our kids are learning from that example.

It's been a rough time in America lately for race relations.  Really, when has it not been?  But I firmly believe what I told my staff on the last day. They are saving the world.  Not all at once, and not the whole world, but these are the kinds of relationships and respect that I think will save us.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Gathering Them Up

When I was a third-grade teacher, I had a wonderful student in my class named Roxana.  Twelve years later, I was looking for young adults to hire at Harbor House, and I reached out to Roxana and some other former students on Facebook.  Roxana said that she was going to UCLA now, but she had this friend we'll call Lisa who she thought would be a really good fit.

I am so grateful to Roxana.

Lisa is quiet and unassuming. She is also efficient, determined, loyal, and incredibly caring in a very practical way.  We quickly promoted her and she now has quite a bit of responsibility in several different departments at Harbor House, although she hasn't turned 21 yet.  She saved my sanity during the school year with her computer knowledge, reliability, and ability to deal with anything that came up, with absolutely no drama.

I was feeling quite stressed out one day and was talking to my executive director about all the things I had to do.  I briefly mentioned that I had asked Lisa to make a flyer to put up on the front door when she walked in to deliver it.  She had not only made the flyer I had asked, she had translated it into three languages, printed two copies of each, put it in the shared files, and emailed them to me. I immediately felt better with this kind of competence and efficiency around.

However, this summer was when I truly realized how fortunate we are to have Lisa in our Harbor House family.  Lisa was in charge of our youngest group of children, ages four to six. She was also responsible for five young staff, mentoring them and managing them, and she did this beautifully, helping both children and staff realize their full potential.  She never lost her temper, even when she had children who bit and threw tantrums, but dealt with all situations fairly and patiently.

In addition, Lisa ended up having her own flock of children who she transported to Harbor House every day.  It began when we hired her younger sister and then she enrolled her nephew in our program. She added another student who lived nearby and her cousin to the list as well.  Next, with her car full to bursting, we found out that a child in Oakland (at the school I used to teach at) had been caught in the crossfire of a shooting and was paralyzed.  As this student's mother was in the hospital all day with her, the younger brother needed somewhere to go, and he happened to live near Lisa.  Lisa went with our executive director to talk to his family, providing Spanish translation, and agreed to borrow a different car every day in order to fit yet another child in her car.

As I was thinking of affirmations to share at our end of the summer staff barbecue, I just kept thinking of Lisa driving around East Oakland, picking up children who aren't hers to bring them to Harbor House.  I kept thinking about Jesus saying "Let the little children come to me," and Lisa bringing them, literally, to a place where they can learn that Jesus loves them.  Bringing them to a safe place where they can feel loved and free to be children.  When I brought this up at our barbecue, a long-time staff member mentioned that this is how Harbor House started. Olive Freeman, our founder, saw the needs of children in Oakland and started the program out of her car.  I feel like it's a modern-day parable: this young woman driving a huge truck around Oakland, gathering up children to come be loved.

From this you might assume that Lisa comes from a privileged background, the product of strong schools and parental support.  The reality is even more impressive: Her parents came from Mexico and are hard-working but speak limited English and I suspect that she and her older sister have had to provide a lot of translation and other help for their parents, beginning at a very young age.  She probably navigated her education alone, and she was not in neighborhoods with good schools that would provide a lot of help.  She is also essentially raising her younger sister, and shares a room with this sister and their nephew.

This growth, transformation and opportunity to excel is a strength of Harbor House.  Although Lisa wasn't in our program as a student, I can see young "Lisas" in our classes today.  Despite the significant difficulties they have in their lives, these children are learning from staff members like Lisa.  It's not just learning to read and write or their multiplication tables:  Lisa, like the other Harbor House staff members, is a living example of how to be giving and loving.  And it's clear that that even the young fives in Lisa's class are watching and learning.  I can't wait until they're ready to be the next generation of the Harbor House staff.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Because You Love Us

For two weeks during the summer program, we have groups of intrepid high school students (and their extremely brave, good-natured adult chaperones) come stay at Harbor House to live and serve with us.  Two weeks ago, we had a group from Yuba City, California and this week we have a group from Keller, Texas.  They spend their mornings helping with upkeep or cleaning in the house or helping out at other local organizations, and they help with the summer youth program from 12-5 pm.  These groups are called TOTAL (Transforming Oakland Through Action and Love) and tend to come every year.

Today, our very youngest kids, entering kindergarten and first grade, were in the cooking center.  They were making salad for the TOTAL group's dinner, which mostly consisted of ripping lettuce into very, very small pieces.  While the kids were happily shredding lettuce, one of the adults asked the kids if they knew why the group was there.  Hakim, age four, shouted excitedly, "Because you love us!!"

The group wondered if the kids understood why they were making a salad that they weren't getting to eat.  When the same group member asked the kids if they understood why they were making the salad, they all yelled, "Because we love you!"

The kids are beginning to understand that we're all part of God's family; whether we're from Texas or Oakland, regardless of our race, and whether or not we even know each other's names.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Does God Love Vietnamese People?

That is what "Jeffrey," a Vietnamese first grader asked me after a devotion in which we talked about how much God loves us all.  He seemed very concerned, and it came out that his brother was moving to the US from Vietnam and he had to make sure that God loved him.  When I assured him that yes, God loved Vietnamese people and specifically loved his brother, he asked me if God speaks Vietnamese.  When I said yes, he looked slightly incredulous. Then he pulled himself together, "I just had to make sure, because my big brother is coming from Vietnam, so I needed to know if God speaks Vietnamese."

Jeffrey then leaned in close to me and kind of whispered as he asked, "But does God speak Chinese?"  I said yes, and that God loves Chinese people too!  Jeffrey beamed.  
"No way!!"  He smiled to himself for the rest of the day.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Myth of the Angry Black Man

When I was a new teacher, teaching in a very low-income, violent part of Oakland, I had made a note on a report card that a certain boy was having problems with anger.  His mother came in and explained to me, not unkindly, that labeling an African-American boy as "angry" could follow him for the rest of his life.  I changed the notation, mostly because I was being conflict-avoidant, but I didn't really understand the impact of the angry black man stereotype. Thirteen or fourteen years later, I understand what she was saying much more clearly.

We have a young man on staff who is one of our class leaders.  "Julian" is a tall, dark-skinned black man.  He is one of the more gentle members of my staff, and has a real gift for relating to kindergartners, even folding his 6'4" frame up to sit on the tiny kindergarten chairs without a complaint.  He is patient and kind with the children at all times, never raising his voice and rarely expressing frustration.

Julian and I have had a number of evaluation meetings, and one thing that he often brings up is that he worries about the kids being afraid of him.  He's afraid of looking angry, telling me that even when he's just a little bit serious, people think he's angry.  He didn't have to continue - I know the next part.  An angry black man is terrifying to most people.

Racial tensions in Oakland are high and there is significant distrust between different ethnic groups.  When I was a teacher, many non-black parents were extremely hesitant about having their children interact with African-American staff, especially men. It is an incredible testament to the community that has been built at Harbor House that parents are comfortable leaving their children with Julian.  I don't mean because he is angry or scary, because that couldn't be further from the truth. He's an incredible asset to our staff and community.

The stereotype of the "Angry Black Man" makes it difficult for all black men to interact with others.  Just being black and male can cause many people to be afraid without evidence.  The darker the shade of his skin or the taller and heavier he is, the more of a threat he is perceived to be. I can't imagine what it would be like to hear car doors lock and see people cross the street every time I was in the area.

Fortunately, the five-year-olds at Harbor House are not buying into this stereotype, thanks to Julian and other young African-American men we have working for us.  These children, from all ethnic backgrounds, have seen role models of all colors.  They will be able to stand up to these stereotypes.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"I Knew They'd Be Cute, But They Were Good!"

"I knew they'd be cute, but they were good!" That's the English translation of what a Spanish-speaking mother said to me after the choir performance our kids were in.  She had come to see her twin third-graders sing and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that not only were they enthusiastic and adorable; they actually sounded good too!

The choir performance illuminated a number of aspects of our kids' (and their families') lives that I wasn't totally aware of.  First of all, many of the families just don't have the ability to be as involved with their children as they'd like - in some cases because they're taking care of other people's children.  The mother quoted above is a nanny for two boys, making it so that she doesn't see her own boys nearly as much as she'd like.  She is as involved as she can be and is constantly in communication with me about how they're doing but she can't go to their school or be with them after school because she has to take care of someone else's children.  She had tears in her eyes seeing her boys perform because she had no idea how hard they'd been practicing. 

Many of the parents were grateful that their kids had the chance to get some music enrichment and learn to love singing.  They patiently waited through other groups singing to hear their kids and told them how excited they were and how proud they were.  However, some did not make it, for a variety of reasons.

Whether the parents wanted to come but couldn't, or didn't want to come, it didn't seem to matter to the kids.  The letdown they felt was obvious when they found out that their family wasn't there.  One girl's mom got sick right before and let me know she couldn't come.  The girl said she understood but looked dejected the rest of the night.  Another parent - whose child had a solo - dropped them off instead of asking for a ride from us, went all the way home and told them he'd come back.  He didn't so we drove the kids home. 

A brother and sister pair got a ride with me. Their parents don't speak any English and are pretty shy about coming to anything but I was hoping that they'd make it here.  They didn't, and as I dropped the kids off at home, the older brother said, "They're all at home and all their cars are here and they didn't want to come."  By "all," he meant mom, dad, aunt, uncle, grandma, and grandpa. 

While I'd prefer that the parents were there, of course, my executive director and I, along with one of our staff members, got to be there and it was really special for us. This is where the family structure of our program comes in.  I'd rather their parents be there, but when they aren't or can't, we can be the surrogate parents.  Driving the kids home and talking about their accomplishments and how amazing they sounded was a very special time for me.  In addition, the kids from my car kept telling me how much they liked riding in my car and wondering if they could ride in it again.  Trust me, my car is nothing special.  They wanted more time with someone who shows they care.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Harbor Home"

A video overview of what we do! Watch until you see the kids, as (in my opinion), they are the best part.

Some of the highlights for me:

  • The principal of a school we work with saying "They really should change the name to Harbor Home because it is a home."
  • The parent saying "I don't know what I would have done without these people.  They teach me and are still teaching me how to parent my kid and how to be part of the village that raises kids."
  • The mom explaining in Vietnamese how important this is to her kids since she can't help them with English.
  • The dad who just came from a housepainting job and took time - while in his paint-y clothes - to thank us in English which is tough for him.  
  • Knowing that the parents who are speaking come from a variety of faith backgrounds and a huge diversity of cultures.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ayana's Growth

One of the best things about having a mostly teenage staff is seeing the opportunity for growth in them.  For many of our staff, this is their first job, and the most basic components of having a job need to be taught.  I've had to explain that you have to call in sick every day that you're sick, not call in the first day and then wait until you're better and let me know you're coming back to work.  We've discussed showing up for work in shoes that aren't going to sprain your ankle if you're running after a child, using appropriate language in front of children, and letting me know ahead of time if you have a doctor's appointment, instead of telling me 15 minutes after you were supposed to be at work.  I love having these conversations because we all had to learn this (and, of course, some adults still aren't there) and I get to be a part of the learning process. 

In December, I implemented a self-evaluation process.  Staff members evaluated themselves and then my youth coordinator and I met with them to compare our evaluations and talk to them about what can improve. The process was especially memorable with Ayana, a high school junior.  Ayana was a child in our program for a few years, and came back as a high school student looking for employment.  She started working with the youngest group of kids and was good but lacked initiative .  She waited until they asked her for help and wasn't very proactive about finding out what the kids needed.  

When we had our evaluation meeting, I talked to her about this and gave her some suggestions.  Immediately, I noticed a change.  She noticed the change as well.  she started setting higher standards for herself, which culminated in her wanting to talk to me and my Executive Director about her own grades.  She told us about some things she was worried about at home and how that's been affecting her grades, and then told us we had to make sure that she stayed for the tutoring provided for her and that she did her best.  I even had her write down the agreement so I could remind her of it.  

Last weekend, Ayana talked at our fundraising dinner, in front of 240 people.  She brought this up herself and chronicled the change in her life since she had come to Harbor House.  It was really impressive to see a 17-year old with the maturity and insight to see how being honest and accepting feedback helped her grow, both in her own life and in how she helps the children.

Now, just like the rest of us, Ayana is not perfect.  I had to talk to her this week about teamwork and last week about getting along with all colleagues.  But the amazing thing is that she takes that feedback and she resolves to do better, and that's all anyone can ask.  

She got three notes from students last week.  One told her that she was just like a queen, one said that she loved her, and one said "thank you for teaching me to read." I'm so thankful for her work with these kids.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why Support the Harbor House Youth Program?

I'd like to talk a little more about our youth program before I start sharing stories. I’m the Director of Education at Harbor House. Harbor House is a community organization in the San Antonio district of Oakland.  In contrast to the neighboring areas of Lake Merritt and downtown Oakland, the San Antonio district is predominately low-income and extremely racially diverse.
We work closely with the families and schools and currently even have a student and her mother and little brother living with us right now after they lost their housing.  Isabel has been at Harbor House since she was a toddler coming to pick up her brother from the youth program.  She’s been through some extremely difficult situations, including multiple stints being homeless, and has a lot of anger about the insecurity and some aspects of her family situation.  I have met with her principal, teacher, school counselor, and mother, and we’re all working together to help her through this.  Her mother texted me last week saying that she’s so grateful that Isabel actually has a village of people who believe in her. When the Executive Director, Kathy, made the decision to let their family live at Harbor House until they could find a place, I told the principal at their school.  The principal looked at me very seriously and said, “I do believe this might be the making of that little girl.”

I’ve been at Harbor House since July of last year and have heard about it for much longer.  I met the current executive director, Kathy Dwyer, when I was a teacher in East Oakland and she was a volunteer in my third-grade class.  I was teaching in a very dangerous neighborhood and Kathy was an extremely valued volunteer who was willing to brave the perceived and real dangers of the area.

Harbor House was started in 1972 by an Oakland teacher named Olive Freeman.  She noticed that many of her students came to school hungry and without the necessary supplies.  She started to collect donations from her friends and fellow parishoners at Oakland Covenant Church.  Since then it has gone through some changes, including moving to the current location, but keeps the mission of showing God’s love to the neighborhood through much-needed services.
I’m responsible for the youth program, but in addition, we are a distribution point for the Alameda County food bank, we provide emergency food and clothing, and have a thrift store, ESL classes, and social services help.  However, our largest program is the youth program, and that is my focus here.

In the youth program, we strive to provide a safe place and a surrogate family for children who often have neither.  We also offer much-needed academic help.  Many of our students’ parents don’t speak English well or are working multiple jobs and therefore don’t have the time or ability to help them with their homework.  We work with the children in small groups and individually, according to their needs, and bring in enrichment activities such as gardening, creative writing, music, art, cooking, and sports.

During the school year, we have 65 children come to the house every day, ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade.  We pick the kids up from the neighboring schools and walk them a few blocks to Harbor House, where we do a devotion time with Bible teaching (emphasizing how much God loves them), songs, and a prayer.  The kids participate in leading the prayers and we’ve had some very touching moments when they get up to pray.  

We provide the students with a hot snack every day.  Many of these kids don’t get enough to eat at home, so we make sure the snack is more like a well-balanced meal, and we try to make enough so they can eat as much as they want.  They have homework time, and if they finish their homework, they can work on creative writing or math at their level.  Everyone participates in a short exercise time and then the children have free time, when they can finish homework, play indoors with board games, or outside on the playground, or play tetherball, wallball, or a variety of other activities.  They often protest when their parents come to pick them up because they enjoy being at Harbor House so much!

We have an extremely diverse group of children.  I taught in Oakland for 8 years and I’ve never seen such a diverse group.  I think we have at least 14 languages, and a wide variety of ethnicities.  Many children are from immigrant or refugee families.  We just got a 4th grade girl, Myat, whose family is from Burma.  They are refugees and speak very little English.  Their native language is Karen, which has no written component, and one of our staff members is working closely with Myat to help her learn to read and write in English.  

One thing that makes our program unique among Christian organizations is the religious diversity.  We have students from Buddhist, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, atheist, and agnostic backgrounds.  As someone who was raised in a Christian home, it is amazing for me to see some of the kids’ reactions the first time they hear a Bible story, or the first time they really understand that Jesus loves them.  One of our third-graders, Esteban, asked me for a Bible last week.  He told me that he wanted to read the Bible to learn more about what we were talking about.  I found a children’s Bible and showed him a good spot in Matthew to start.  He said, “I should start in the middle of the book?”  We have an appointment next week to talk about what he’s been reading.  A second-grader, Sameer, comes from a Muslim family from Yemen.  They were concerned about his coming to a Christian program but were so impressed with the homework help and the friends that Sameer has made that they’ve decided to let him stay and his older brother and sister are thinking about working with us this summer.

On Wednesdays, the children have a short day at school so we have them for almost five hours instead of two and a half.  We bring in a choir teacher who works with them for half the time, and during the other half, they have clubs.  Right now we have an art club, a sports club, and a gardening club, which is new and very exciting, thanks to a volunteer who has gotten the kids really passionate about gardening and composting.  In the past, we’ve had computer clubs and cooking clubs. 

Another unique aspect of our program is that we hire staff from the youth in the neighborhood.  Our staff ranges from 9th grade to community college students.  They have many of the same challenges as the children in the program, and are providing guidance to the kids while earning some money and being in a safe place after school themselves.  One of our staff members, Ayana, has been working with us for over two years.  She is a high school junior who lives with her grandmother.  Ayana has very little guidance in her life and came to me in December.  She told me that she knew she was making excuses for not doing well in school and that she wanted me to help her to do her best in school, and to make sure she’s talking about what is going on.  Her family is being evicted from their home and she has to move to a rougher neighborhood in Oakland, but she comes to work every day ready to help the kids.  Kathy has a friend who is a retired math professor who comes and tutors Ayana once or twice a week after she helps the kindergarteners and first graders with their work.  Working with teenagers can be challenging, obviously, but also extremely rewarding.  I’ve found that they need a lot of guidance but are incredibly responsive and do a very good job with our kids.  So, in this way, it’s not only outreach to our children but to the high school and college staff.

During the summer, we run a day camp for five weeks.  Since the kids have no homework, we do field trips, art, gardening, sports, writing, reading, cooking, and more.  We have 75-80 kids and tons of volunteers.  A high school student in Moraga is providing a swimming field trip for us – she does all the fundraising and provides enough volunteer lifeguards to make our (mostly non-swimming) children safe. 

While we have a lot of fun with the students, there are some tough realities.  Like I said, many of the kids don’t get enough to eat at home, and some don’t have adequate or safe living spaces.  I have had to make child abuse reports and we have one little boy right now whose mom is in the hospital from domestic violence.  While we can’t change many of these situations, we can provide a safe place with caring staff.  From my time teaching, I’ve learned how to help the kids verbalize their feelings and talk with us about what they need and what is bothering them.  The children are incredibly supportive of each other as well and love to pray for and encourage each other.  A first-grader, Sophia, recently announced that she had no friends.  Within 10 seconds, she was surrounded by kindergartners and first graders who were loudly proclaiming how much they wanted to be her friend. 

There’s not a big staff at Harbor House.  My executive director, Kathy, and the facilities manager, Hector, are the only full-time staff.  I am 75% time, and the only person above 25 years old in the youth program staff.  However, everyone wears multiple hats.  Kathy jumps in whenever it’s needed and is the most supportive boss I’ve ever had.  Hector, who has a dramatic personal story about gangs and prison sentences before he became a Christian, is the surrogate dad for the kids and staff in the program, and is invaluable.  We have a volunteer bookkeeper and are hoping to hire a part-time development person soon.

We have many volunteer opportunities: for people who enjoy kids, who enjoy being behind the scenes, anyone who is interested in development, one-time volunteer opportunities, and regular opportunities.  Volunteers help run our clubs, help tutor students individually, and provide supplies like crafts, art, knitting needles, and books.  The program is supported through a combination of very few government and foundation grants, church donations, and mostly individual gifts.  We are always looking for more financial support and our program is extremely effective; one of the most direct ways to impact underprivileged children’s lives that I’ve seen yet.

I have been working with at-risk kids for almost 18 years now and I’ve never been so happy or encouraged to be a part of a program.  I'm really excited to bring our stories to you!

My Ideal Job

I have a new job!

Well, I meant to write that in July.  It's been a little busy.  With a new job and all.

But I'll tell you about it!  It might, in fact, be the perfect job for me.  There's the slight matter of working for a non-profit and getting a non-profit level salary.  but aside from that, it's pretty perfect for me.

Although I am a Christian and my faith is a very important part of my life, I've never worked for a Christian school or organization, however, in part because I never wanted to only work with Christians or strictly with kids for Christian families. 

I'm a public school teacher and worked in a quite difficult public school for eight years.  I loved the kids, loved most of the parents, had difficulties with the administration (most of the 8 incarnations of them) and hated the politics and testing.

Guess what?  I got a job at a Christian organization that hires and serves all children and youth in the neighborhood, not just Christians.  It's the kids I love to work with from public schools without the testing or politics.  I LOVE IT.

I'm in charge of an after-school program with 60 kids in elementary and middle school.  They come from Christian (Protestant and Catholic), Buddhist, and non-religious families.  Their families are from Nigeria, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, Nepal, Laos, Thailand, China, Taiwan, and the United States.  They are being raised by moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunties, and combinations of all of those.

These kids area all being served by the public schools but I don't have to deal with testing, Common Core standards, or constantly rotating principals.

In addition, most of our staff are teenagers from the neighborhood, and I love working with them.  They are often raw and young and unprofessional, but they are wonderful and I am so privileged to work with them.

There are, of course, challenges to this job.  There's a lot of fundraising and having young employees can be difficult as well as wonderful.  But I love it. 

If you pray, please pray for me.  If you want to financially support us, take a look at or email me for more information.  Stay tuned for more information.