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.