An Hour (or at least 20 minutes) in the Mustard Seed Front Office

Casey Knittel, the program director of Mustard Seed, in front of one of the many murals which bring brightness, creativity and whimsy to Mustard Seed.

Casey Knittel has been with Mustard Seed since 2009. She started out as one of our Student Resource Specialists, before becoming a Montessori certified teacher, and eventually transitioning into the Assistant Director role before leaving for a two-year stint in Development at Loaves & Fishes. Today, Casey is our Mustard Seed Program Director. 

“Mustard Seed is a place where you see pure love in action, and there’s no place I would rather be!”

Since this is a place for stories, and for little glimpses into the world of North C Street, I wanted to let you in on some of the gentle loving craziness of the days we spend serving kids experiencing homelessness at Mustard Seed School:

After working at Loaves & Fishes for over eight years, I still feel that every day challenges me to reach a deeper level of presence. I want to meet each moment, meet each child, meet each parent, and give them the full attention they deserve. Some hours that’s easier than others.

With such a small school staff, two days a week at noon our office manager, Liana needs to help supervise the students for lunch and recess. Since I am the only other staff member who works in our front office, I gear up ahead of time to be present for that hour.

As Liana leaves her desk, I settle into the rhythm of whatever the moment brings.

On a recent Thursday, it didn’t take long for things to get started.

Just before noon, our preschool teacher Stacy banged through the back door with three year old twins who were being dismissed early that day. Their parents hadn’t arrived yet, but one of the twins was having a hard time eating lunch in her classroom and had been yelling and throwing food. She was amped up, so her teacher was bringing her to the office to finish waiting. Stacy sat down and skillfully soothed her while I got a coloring book for her brother. She calmed a little and was interested in coloring too.

Stacy went back to her classroom just as one of our Loaves & Fishes dining room volunteers came through the front door. He had dictionaries to donate for our older kids. He handed me a plastic bag of books. I thanked him and turned my attention back to our small student, who was now breaking her crayons in half and throwing them.

The phone rang, it was one of our preschool moms letting us know that she would also be picking up her daughter early. There was a free harvest festival for kids going on a few blocks over at Women’s Empowerment. Our preschool assistant teacher, Tracy brought her daughter up to the front office to wait. She sat quietly on a bench.

My child total was up to three in our small waiting area.

Then Chakira, our K-2 teacher, rushed through the back door with a first grader who had fallen and needed first aid. He was crying. Chakira went to bring him his lunch while I took care of him.

Our front door opened and our afternoon volunteer, Terri came in to lend a hand. She sat with our first grader and started chatting with him, helped him calm down.

Our 6th-8th grade teacher JD came in the backdoor to make copies and prepare for an afternoon field trip.

At this point, our tiny crayon-throwing student was looking for attention again. She checked to make sure I was looking and started shaking a lamp as if she might push it to the ground. I took her hand and had her stay close to me. Her twin brother had found stickers in his coloring book and was putting them on his face. I reminded him that stickers are for paper just as two more parents came through the front door.

One mom signed out her daughter, who was waiting quietly on the bench, while the another mom needed her son to be woken up from naptime to go to the harvest festival. She didn’t know she needed to tell us in advance if she didn’t want him to rest. JD went to our preschool classroom and brought the sleepy four year old up to meet his mom.

As those families left, another mom came in. She and her children had spent last night sleeping on Ahern Street, and she was scared and shaken by the experience. They had heard a bad fight just outside their tent and had to pray that they stayed safe behind the tent walls.  She had just met with an outreach worker from the County and she needed me to sign and fax a form verifying their homelessness, with the hope she might get some help. Seeing how many kids were still in the office, the mom left the form with me to do as soon as possible.

I tried, but failed to get that form faxed over while I still had my little preschool friend in tow. That would need to wait. I could hear emails arriving at my desk. Those would need to wait too.

Two of our middle school students were brought into the office. They had gotten heated at lunch and had been arguing and name calling. One of them was the daughter of the mom who just left, who had been in the tent on Ahern last night. The other was a returning Mustard Seed student who had been sleeping in a car with his mother and three siblings on North A Street, close to the school.

I separated them and had them sit to calm down before we tried to resolve anything. At this point it was about 12:20 pm. Still another 40 minutes before lunch and recess were over.

Later, one of those middle-schoolers fell asleep sitting up in her chair. I would need to wake her up before we processed the argument with a self-reflection strategy that is part of our school’s social-emotional curriculum.

Eventually, all of the students were picked up by their parents or went back to class. Eventually, all the forms were faxed, and (hopefully) all the emails answered.


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