Friday, November 13, 2015

Bullying: A Success Story

Bullying is something that is a problem for just about every school, childcare program, Scouting program, dance class, or any other organization that works with children. We deal with it here but we also work closely enough with the local school attended by most of our students that we can be partners with them.

One of our students, "Johnnie," has been the focus of a lot of bullying lately. It's interesting because he used to be more of a bully himself. He's bigger than many of the other kids and he was, until very recently, really angry. He was angry because he had no dad and because his mom always had to work and was sick with a bunch of different issues. He was angry because no one was able to really make him feel safe - he has dealt with eviction and not having regular meals and not having a bedtime or anyone to set limits at the house because his mom was working overnight. He also had pretty severe ADHD and was very frustrated that he didn't have the ability to stop some of his impulsive behaviors.

We worked with Johnnie to gain some emotional coping skills that he didn't have before. We helped him identify his feelings and helped model how to talk to other children appropriately. We also enlisted the other kids in helping and this was where the biggest successes came in.

Harbor House is a family and the kids talk about that often. we discussed frankly the fact that we are a family whether we are getting along or not and whether we are annoying one another or not. Then we talked about how to help each other. Johnnie was up front with wanting to "be nicer" to other kids, so we brainstormed together how we can all do that, taking the focus off of him. Th other kids were very helpful, both with empathy: "I have a hard time being nice to people when I feel bad about myself," and with practical solutions, "You could say to someone, 'I'm feeling lonely, will you be my friend?'"

It was wonderful to see these kids rally around Johnnie, who quite honestly had not always treated them well. They were extremely forgiving and empathetic. But the real victory came at school. We went to pick up the kids from school one day and Johnnie was in tears: Someone had cursed at him and told him he flunked and said that he should die. However, all of the other kids who went to harbor House sprang into action as soon as they heard this. One of them said they knew who the bully was and went to tell the principal. One offered to be his friend on the walk to Harbor House. One said that he would play with Johnnie at recess.  His sister told him that she loved him and that he was her best brother (we won't tell the other brother). And when we got back to Harbor House, a fifth grader wrote a note for this first grader, saying that, "Just so you know if you are sad or bullied, someone will always be there for you and I am talking about myself."

By the end of the day, Johnnie told me he felt really good about himself and that he didn't care about his bully anymore.

That is success.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mac and Mitali

We had a wonderful last week of our summer program, complemented by not one, but TWO author visits! Two wonderful local authors came to talk to our kids and get them excited about stories and reading.

Harbor House got a grant from Oakland Reads 2020 that provided a book for every child in our program, along with some food for an end-of-summer celebration. I let each child choose from one of Mitali Perkins's or Mac Barnett's books and told them that they would actually get to meet the author who wrote that book!

Mitali Perkins, a friend and supporter of Harbor House, came to see us on Monday of that week and talked to the older kids, as she writes fiction primarily geared toward upper elementary and middle school students. She talked a little about writing her first book and how many rejections she received - the kids couldn't believe that a real published author would have received rejections and had to rework her book!

The kids picked up on the delight with which Mitali talked about "story," and the stories we all have and relate to, and followed her talk raptly. She pointed out that stories are all around us, including in songs, and that all a story needs are "people, place, and plot." Many of the kids chose her newest book, Tiger Boy, about a boy in India who is going up against poachers to save a tiger cub. She was gracious and let the kids and teenage staff take pictures with her, which they loved.

On the last day of our program, Mac Barnett stopped by for his second visit to Harbor House. He talked to all the kids, as he writes books for both younger and older children. Mac read a few of his picture books, and his charming humor pairs incredibly with the talented illustrators he's worked with. All of the books were hits, but the most exciting one was his as-yet-unpublished book Leo: A Ghost Story, a sweet book about a misunderstood little ghost who wants to make mint tea and honey toast for his friends. The kids loved it and couldn't believe they were hearing a book that wasn't even in stores yet! He signed the book and left it for us under another pile of books so that I found it while cleaning up.

I wasn't sure how many of the younger kids would appreciate having their books signed, but they were thrilled. They basically mobbed him and he didn't seem to mind, but talked to each of them, listening intently when they had something to tell him. It was clear that he genuinely enjoyed his audience and connected to them in a very meaningful way.

Both authors made the world of writing and publishing more accessible to the children. The kids (and the staff!) were starstruck and felt so special to have these guests take time out of their busy schedules to talk to them. This is incredibly important for kids who often feel (justifiably) that they are overlooked and ignored. I know how generous it is for authors who must have to charge for most appearances to do this pro bono for us. We look forward to continuing our relationships with Harbor House's two favorite authors.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Prayers of Children

Every day at Harbor House, we have a devotion time where we learn about something from the Bible and pray together. Our kids are from such a diverse group of religions and personal experiences, and most of our lessons revolve around how much God loves them. I also like to tell them how they can talk to God at any time and any place they want.

Today, I asked them if anyone knew what my favorite Bible story was. They did: the one where the kids flock to Jesus and the disciples rebuke them, saying that they should leave Jesus alone.  Jesus, in turn, rebukes the disciples, telling them to "let the little children come to me." I love telling children that story, especially children who haven't heard it before and are awe-struck at the fact that Jesus wanted to spend time with people just like them. It is a true honor to see children's faces as they realize the love of God for them.

Today, we took it a little farther and all prayed together.  We pray every day and bring one or two kids up front to pray for our snack and whatever concerns are on their heart.  It is an honest, beautiful process to see kids talking directly to God.  We have a bit of a wonderful problem in that too many of the kids want to pray every day, so today I decided to let them go for it. I told them that we would all pray together, and they could just close their eyes and raise their hands and when I called their name, they could ask or thank God for something.  About a third of them did it - which is a huge fraction to speak in front of the whole group, let alone in something as intimate as prayer.  They asked for rain, healing for family members, jobs and money for family members, and good things for Harbor House.  They thanked God for food, friends, family, life, Harbor House, and "everything." It was beautiful and I am so honored to have been a part of it.  

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer Staff

 Here's my staff for the summer! They are an extremely diverse group, in many ways.

We have staff whose family have origins in Cambodia, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Mexico, Vietnam, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Tanzania, as well as African Americans, Caucasian Americans, and one Native American staff member.  

These staff members are between 13-27 years old (the ones in their mid-20s are not pictured), plus me (not telling). 

Some go to Oakland public schools, some to community colleges in Oakland, and some to private schools (one young woman has a scholarship to an extremely prestigious private school in the area).

Their personalities range from introverted to extroverted, from shy to gregarious, from responsible to forgetful, and from guarded to open.  Sometimes I see them cycle between one extreme to another in the same week, or even the same day.

The one thing they all have in common is that they really want to do their best.  They're here for the kids, although sometimes they forget that, which is understandable because they are kids themselves.  They are kind, thoughtful, funny, and help me out whenever I ask (usually).  They are my favorite teenagers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


One of our more dedicated Harbor House volunteers is an avid quilter. Harbor House does have a quilting group, but that wasn't what attracted this volunteer.  As someone who's worked with children as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA), Bruce wanted to stay in touch with one of his families after his official capacity ended.  So when the kids joined the Harbor House program, Bruce offered to volunteer with us once a week.  Thus started what Humphrey Bogart might call a beautiful friendship between Bruce and Harbor House.

Bruce works with the youngest kids; primarily the boys. Many of these little guys have no male role models in their lives and crave the attention of any man who volunteers. They don't have a lot of people who really listen to them, and Bruce

does this well. He sits on the ground with the kids and looks them in the eye and gives them his full attention, whether they're having an argument, playing a game or telling a drawn-out story about their neighbor's cat.

Some volunteers increase their involvement as they get to know an organization while others slowly fade away as the novelty wears off. Bruce is the former. In addition to spending time with the kids, he started buying us snack ingredients, which both helps out our budget and the over-stretched schedules of our staff who would otherwise have to go snack shopping. When we discussed how often he'd want to come help out during the summer program, Bruce started with Tuesdays and Thursdays, then decided Friday field trips sounded fun. Before the program started, he had added in Mondays, and he just let me know that he could often come on Wednesdays, just a little late.

Our teenage staff is sometimes a little hesitant about having volunteers assigned to help them.  They've seen many volunteers come and go, and while there have been some absolute shining stars, it can be hard for teenagers with a lot of responsibility to adjust to different people helping. In addition, many of our volunteers are white (our staff and kids are generally not) and of retirement age, so it can be tough for the staff to relate to them.  Wary of these concerns about volunteers, I asked the counselor in charge of one of the younger groups if she was OK having Bruce volunteer for the summer in her group. She said, "Yay Bruce! Do I get him the whole time?? That helps me so much. Everyone loves Bruce!!"  Yes, Bruce, everyone here at Harbor House does love you.  Here's lookin' at you, kid.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Our Friends from Tampa!

At Harbor House, we get a lot of volunteer groups.  The one we had this past week was wonderful!  Coming all the way from the University of Tampa in Florida, this group of 10 students and one advisor was enthusiastic about everything.  They stayed at Harbor House and immediately endeared my staff to them by offering to clean up the kitchen after each afternoon's snack.

The kids are quite used to volunteers, but most volunteers stay a week or less (sometimes only a day), so the kids were pleasantly surprised when, after a weekend, the same group was still there and remembered their names.  There were some hidden talents such as singing and ukelele playing that we put to good use, and everyone in the group was friendly, open, and wanted to spend time reading to the kids and learning about Oakland.

The groups that are willing to do anything are such a blessing, as there are a lot of random tasks to be done at Harbor House.  From tree pruning to snack making to kitchen mopping to tutoring, the group wholeheartedly embraced our mission and our neighborhood and are welcome back any time!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Intern's Testimony

[This is Christina, one of our senior interns, who talked at our fundraiser on Saturday.  She was mature and poised and really touched me.  If you'd like to support her and other other inters, please click on the "donate" button or write to me for how you can send a check.  Thanks!]

Hi.  My name is Christina Saechao.  I’m 18 years old and am a senior at Oakland High School.  I am currently involved in the Polynesian club and am Vice President, was a cheerleader and I work 18 hours each week at Harbor.  I am a first generation American.  I am proud to say that I will be attending Cal State Northridge next Fall and plan to study biology – I would like to be an ob-gyn or a midwife.
I was introduced to Harbor House by my cousin when I was 14 years old – she was volunteering here and told me about a job opportunity.  It was at a time when I was wanting to become more responsible, and start working so I could pay for my own things like my phone bill, shoes that I like and basic things that any girl would want...Little did I know that I had come to Harbor House when I was 5.  My mom would come to quilt and while she quilted, I played on the play ground.  When I walked in to HH for my job interview, It felt as if I had been there before – and I had!  

Working at Harbor House has never been easy.  I am continually challenged in my job, especially by the students enrolled in the after school program.  For example, my first year at Harbor House I was in charge of a Kindergartener/1st grade table.  After bible study time, the students sit down with an intern like myself, and do their homework.  The ratio is about 5 students to 1 intern.  If one student is difficult, then it can ruin the whole group social dynamic and make homework time very challenging.  One of my first graders was one of those difficult kids…she had attitude towards me all of the time.  For some reason she didn’t accept me as her “intern” and she wouldn’t listen to what I asked her to do, and she would give me her mug face no matter what.  This in turn made her an outcast from the other kids at the table. 

The following year, I became a Junior intern and was in charge of the 2nd graders, which meant that I had to deal with the same difficult student from last year.  Again, she made a mug face when she saw me and even said when she noticed me at the beginning of the school year “I have you again?”  What an attitude!  We endured living like this together for 2 month’s until I noticed that she had been gone for a couple days and asked our education director about her.  I was told that this girl’s grandfather, who was a very important man in her life, had passed away.  When I saw her, even though I knew she didn’t like me, I wanted to let her know that I was here for her if she ever wanted to talk about her grandfather.  She started crying – I told her that it was okay to cry, to not hold it in and to let it out.  When she stopped crying she hugged me and said thank you.  Ever since that day, we have been great friends.  And, when the following year came, I had her again.  And this time when she walked in she had a smile on her face when she noticed me.

I love being a role model to the kids at Harbor House.  I have the ability to encourage these kids when no one else does.  I know firsthand what it is like to look for encouragement from others and not receive it.  As a young person I always wanted someone to give me encouragement.  Coming from a big family – 6 older sisters (I’m the youngest) I was expected by my sisters to graduate, not have a kid at a young age, and go off to college.  They were expecting so much from me that they didn’t know how to be there and say that they were proud of me.  I never felt that I had the encouragement that everybody wants, so that’s why I want to be an encourager to all of the kids in my life.

Additionally, it is my desire to instill confidence in each of the kids.  I have been blessed to have been surrounded by people who helped me with my confidence, and It’s now my turn to do the same for the kids at Harbor House.  

Most of the kids at Harbor House are like me – their parents work hard, but can’t seem to get ahead.  Sometimes they work 2-3 jobs to make pay their bills and feed their family. How great it is that I can help each kid who doesn’t receive an adequate amount of attention at home, to develop a positive vision for their future! How great it is that I can encourage someone who needs an extra ounce of courage!  How great it is that I can represent God’s love to these kids when human love can’t always meet their needs.

When I look back on the 4 years I have spent here at Harbor House, I realize that each of my kindergartners have grown to be funny, positive, sometimes sassy, young pre-teens.  I too have grown…I am no longer a typical teenager that thinks only of myself, I care more about the important things like putting others before myself, and I have become more confident and outgoing.  I take ownership of my job, help lead the staff and guide them in their daily routines.  Mostly, I have learned to be a friend and a confidant to the kids and co-workers.

I am and will always be grateful for the opportunity to work at Harbor House. I have been able to use the gifts God has given me, to speak kind words of truth to the kids in our program.  I’ve watched their life skills develop, I’ve seen positive growth in myself and the kids that I’ve worked with, and it helped secure my vision for my future. I am also grateful, for all of you who are here tonight who have and/or will be supporting Harbor House’s vision and purpose.  Without your support, I would not have been able to develop into the young woman that is standing here tonight.  

Thank you.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

God's Family

"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God."
1 John 3:1

I love the kids in the youth program.  I tell them that we are all part of God's family - that through God's love, he has made us all part of the same family, even though we look very different.  At this point, we usually have one of the younger kids get really excited and point out that even though our skin is totally different (I am definitely in the minority as a white person at Harbor House), we are related.  Some of them just think it's funny that a very white Caucasian American and a very dark-skinned Nigerian American could be part of the same family, and some of them are really touched that they are God's child, that God loves them, and that the staff and other kids love them.

"Aaron" is one of the latter.  He has a rough life.  He's lived in a variety of different situations during the school year - an apartment, several shelters, with his mom's ex, with relatives, and been kicked out of most of them because of his mother's behavior.  She has her own issues that she is dealing with and loves her son very very much but has probably never seen or experienced what it's like to be a healthy parent who can provide for her child.  Aaron has never met his father.

I am grateful that we have been able to provide some stability for Aaron this year, but it hasn't been easy, and has involved many difficult conversations with him and his mother.  Aaron thrives during devotion time though, and needs to know that he is loved by God and by people.

This boy absolutely loves that he can be a part of God's family.  He told me once that having God as his father "makes me whole."

Recently, in devotion, I told the kids that people always ask me why I don't have kids.  He said, as loud and enthusiastically as he could, "Because you have all of us!!!  We're your family!"

Well said.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

His First Thank You (Updated)

 We have a child in our program who is very angry.  In fact, he tells us almost every day how angry he is.  He is angry because his siblings get all the attention, because we will only help him with his homework and not do it for him, because he doesn't want to do homework, and because we won't let him scream at or hit his sister.  Danny takes incredible patience to work with, because his most common reaction is to scream at the staff person who is helping him.  If he is not actively yelling, he is generally at least being rude.

We have been working very hard with Danny to help him name and manage his feelings.  We explain over and over that he can be angry and we understand that he is angry, but he cannot be rude or yell at people.  He usually responds by shouting, "But I'm angry!"

One of the tools that we've used for him is something I developed in my classroom and call a "feelings paper."  The kids can mark what they're feeling - everything from frustrated to angry to excited to happy to sad to nervous - and sometimes they choose all of the feelings.  Danny gave me a feelings paper at least once a day, maybe more, EVERY DAY for the first few months of this school year.  All of them said he was angry.  Usually in big, bold, capital letters.

I have been so proud of my young staff.  Although they are mostly in high school, they do not lose their tempers with him.  It's actually almost unbelievable how calm they are.  He yells at them and they respond politely.  He throws papers at them and they don't react.  They are continually patient and kind, far after many professional teachers would have lost their cool.  I think they really do understand that he's having a hard time and needs kindness modeled to him.

It's hard for any of us to believe that we are getting anywhere when children are this upset all the time.  So it felt pretty incredible to everyone when one of the staff got this card.  We have never heard Danny say thank you in any way.  We have never heard him acknowledge that we help him.  This was a wonderful sign that he does know, deep down, that we love him and we want him to succeed.  It is also a powerful testament to my staff for remaining calm and kind and truly showing Danny the love of God.

UPDATE: Since I've written this, there has been an incredible turnaround in Danny.  Many of the staff have commented that he "seems like a normal kid now."  What they mean by that is that he is not furious all the time.  He's no angel, but he is spending time playing instead of screaming, doing his homework most of the time, and usually not being rude to people.  When he is rude, if you pull him aside and talk to him, there's much less yelling and much more of a conversation.  He smiles a lot.  He takes compliments.  He usually doesn't hit his sister at Harbor House any more, and he uses the words "please" and "thank you."  He looks happy a lot of the time.  This is a complete turnaround.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Our Faithful Tutors

As the majority of our staff are teenagers and in high school, we try to help them be successful as they help our younger students.  This hep manifests itself in a number of ways, from parental nagging and instruction about homework and deadlines (some of them have parents who can't or are unable to do these things) to hands-on help with specific subjects.

For the latter part, we have a small army of wonderful, dedicated tutors.  They are friends or church members who have been recruited - many retired or with grown children so have a little more free time.  They help mainly with math but have stepped in with other subjects as well.  

Being teenagers, the students getting tutoring do not always have the best follow-through rate.  They want and appreciate the help, but things come up.  Parents schedule family dinners, students don't feel well, they forget their backpacks or other materials, or they decide at the last minute that they can do their homework themselves.  Whenever this happens, I talk to them about how the tutors have taken time out of their schedule and it's unfair to stand them up - sometimes these talks help, and sometimes they don't, but I think it's a learning process to see how your actions affect someone else, and we are all constantly learning.

At one point, I was emailing with some of our newer tutors who were deciding if we had a need for them.  When all of our students who said they needed help actually showed up, we definitely needed all the tutors.  When one or more came unprepared or not at all, we had tutors doubled up or sometimes sitting around.  I always felt bad for the tutors who weren't being fully utilized and hoped they didn't feel like we were wasting their time.  I emailed one of them and she wrote back:
To some degree we tutors are demonstrating to the staff the faithfulness of God. We can be there every week whether the staff is there or not. We can even faithfully be there on those days that the staff says they will be there and then does not arrive. This is especially important for young people who have not experienced that same dependability and faithfulness in their own families. From what you have mentioned, I suspect that Harbor House is that safe place, that dependable place for many of these young people. It is an honor for my husband and me to be included.
That is a beautiful sentiment.  I am so grateful for them and their faithfulness.  I do think that the staff will see their faithfulness, in retrospect if not now. And I hope it will reflect to them, how faithful God is.

Friday, January 9, 2015

His Safe Place

I went to pick up our students from school to walk them to Harbor House on Monday, the first day after Christmas break.  When the bell rang, "Jose" ran away from his classroom and straight at me.  "I missed you so much!!!" He shouted this and ran to me with his arms open wide, hugging me as hard as he could.

Jose is six years old and has a beautiful, kind, loving heart.  He also has a pretty hard life in a lot of ways.  His mom has four children: Jose, his 7-year old sister, his 11-year old brother, and his 14-year old sister.  Their mother, Val, suffers from chronic illness and is a single mother.  She works as a security guard, outside, in the cold and on her feet.  She is understandably exhausted.  The 14-year old picks up a lot of the parenting responsibilities, which is hard for everyone involved.

Jose had a very challenging year last year, both in class and with us.  We had to have him take breaks from our after-school program a few times because he ran into the street and behaved in other ways that were very unsafe.  Every time he came back, he would apologize profusely and be very remorseful, and then do the exact same thing.  His teacher was extremely frustrated with him and told me about it in detail every time I met with her.

This year, Jose is calming down soon and definitely trying as hard as he can.  He still has some issues, and we worked with the wonderful counselor at his school to give him services when he told me that sometimes he wants to be friends with someone but his brain tells him to bite them instead. . The counselor is, fortunately, a huge fan of Jose and loves working with him.  If you've ever wondered if approval makes a difference for a child, I told him yesterday that i had talked to his counselor and the counselor said, "He's such a nice boy."  Jose beamed like it was Christmas.

I am very optimistic about Jose's future, partly because he has so many people on his side, and partly because we are starting interventions so early.  Don't get me wrong, it is hard to be him.  And I think it's very hard to be his mother much of the time.  But she texted me last night and said, "Thank God for ppl like you and all hh staff with not only professionalism but passion and knowledge of understanding human nature and children's view."  She knows we will support her, we will love, support, correct, and praise her child, and that we are available to help find additional resources like counseling.  Jose doesn't sleep well or enough hours and often goes to the couch outside the offices at Harbor House to take a nap.  He literally eats, sleeps, plays, learns, and works at Harbor House, and that makes it very much of a home for him.

Like anyone else, I was a little reluctant to come back to work after Christmas vacation, but when I saw Jose's face light up and saw him run to me with his outstretched arms, I was reminded of how safe he feels with us and how long vacation must have felt for him without his safe place.  He's so happy to be back and we're so glad to have him.