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!