This Extraordinary Place

Rooftop view of Mustard Seed School cottages at sunrise.

It was early March and the rumblings of the coming pandemic had become impossible to ignore. In the Mustard Seed office, daily temperature checks had become a staple of the morning routine, and the realization that our days as a functioning school were numbered had begun to set in. One preschooler had already been sent home the day prior, and this morning another had vomited on the playground. He was quickly taken to the office to wait for his guardian, and the school day began. 

I had some free time and went to the office to print out some worksheets. I found the sick five year old huddled in a corner with a blanket, a pillow, and a book. As I was leaving to go back to my classroom, he exclaimed, “Mr. Kieran! Can you read this to me?”

“Sure!” I said. 

I took a seat on the floor next to him. Social distancing wasn’t yet commonplace, and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him. 

“This book is called ‘Hop on Pop.’ Up pup. Pup is up,” I began. 

He inched closer to get a better look at Dr. Seuss’s illustrations. 

“Cup pup. Pup in cup.” He let out a howl. 

“Mouse house. Mouse on house.”

He laid his head on my shoulder. I kept reading. I suddenly had the feeling that I would probably never see this little boy—who had become a fixture at the school— again. At Mustard Seed, not seeing a student again can be good or bad depending on the situation. It may mean that the student has found stable shelter or housing. Or it could mean that their family has dropped off the map entirely. As it turns out, my inclination was correct. I will probably never see that child again. Thankfully, it’s because he and his guardian have found housing. Still, I can’t help but feel bittersweet when I think back to this moment, which is etched in my mind. It was the last time I felt the joy of being a teacher at Mustard Seed School.

In the two short months since I had been hired, my life had already been changed by this extraordinary place and working with children experiencing homelessness had become the great privilege of my life. When I moved to Sacramento from New Jersey two years ago, the phrase “homeless children” had barely entered my consciousness. I suppose I must have known there was such a thing as homeless children, but it had never really struck me how many families were living on the streets of America. I was told about the school at a Loaves & Fishes volunteer orientation, and a month later I was volunteering every Wednesday and becoming thoroughly addicted to the school’s unique culture of “radical hospitality.” Two months later, a position became available, and I was hired. To say I was elated would be an understatement. I had certainly never envisioned my first job in education being anything like Mustard Seed, but I was quickly welcomed into the fold by the incomparable staff who quickly began to feel more like family than co-workers. I had never been around a group of people so positive and so dedicated to doing good, and there were times where I had flashes of dread that this might all be an incredibly vivid dream. I sometimes feel like I have been searching my whole life for a place like Mustard Seed. To be able to help these amazing children and to be able to do it alongside some of the most amazing people I have ever known is a kind of dream in a way.

As my colleague Stacy Johnson has already written, since the shelter-in-place orders were implemented, we have been spending our time in the Loaves & Fishes dining room preparing and serving lunch daily for hundreds of guests and getting to know another extraordinary group of people at Loaves. The work is different, but the mission is the same: spreading love and hospitality to our homeless neighbors in Sacramento. 

I am co-running our annual summer program, which unfortunately has had to undergo a drastic overhaul due to the ongoing crisis. Normally the program includes all sorts of field trips and guest instructors, but this year we will have to limit the number of children to ten, and remain on campus the entire time. Still, with help from the community, we are determined to give these children a fun, exciting, and stimulating summer experience.

Our Student Resource Specialist Troy Bailey affectionately refers to Mustard Seed as a “hidden gem” of this city, and I agree. In fact, I am not sure whether this exact kind of place could exist anywhere but Sacramento, a city which I have quickly fallen in love with, and whose citizens always seem to be there for their neighbors in need.