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.

I Can’t Beg the World for Change if I Cannot Do it Myself

Although we are all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but feel like the guests at Loaves & Fishes are suffering the most. For our guests, their modes of survival depend on many facilities throughout the Sacramento area, but those locations are no longer available. This puts a lot of weight on the staff at Loaves & Fishes. Being a Mercy Volunteer, it took time for me to adjust to our guests and try to understand their pain. 

Although I will never be able to fully empathize with the pain of people experiencing homelessness, the world they live in (which already creates the conditions of daily struggle) has completely altered yet again. Our guests, which I often refer to as family now, don’t have the privilege or option to stay at home and still survive. Everyday some of our guests have to choose between catching a deadly virus or starving. Many of our guests don’t have a tent to stay in and feel safe, where some express never feeling safe at all. 

While Loaves & Fishes staff are doing amazing things with carrying the load of caring for the homeless population of Sacramento, I can’t help but feel like the city could be doing more. Throughout the past week, myself and some staff at Friendship Park, led by the Advocacy Director Joe Smith, have been visiting camps and talking with the homeless population. They all say no one else has been there. My question is why? 

Why has no one else bothered to stop by and care for our people? In the words of Gandhi, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In that regard, we could all be doing more. A lot of our guests can’t understand the severity of this virus. This is due to the extreme, real fact, that many of the guests we see are impacted by mental illness and physical and intellectual disabilities. How can we simply get more guests to understand it? How can we help our guests to get tested? And how can we ensure they all get the basics of survival: water, food, and hygiene care? 

These are issues and people that I feel like no one cares about. Most days I find myself arguing with my mother because she cannot grasp how I would risk my life everyday for free. I often relay to her that I can’t beg the world for change if I cannot do it myself. 

“This Is Where I Want to Be”: Emerick Flores, Dining Room Program Director

Emerick Flores, Dining Room Program Director, joined the Sacramento Loaves & Fishes family in the beginning of March, just before the city’s shelter in place and social distancing measures were mandated due to COVID-19. Hear directly from Emerick in his interview with Janet Kuzawa, Communications & Outreach Specialist, where he shared his past experiences and what it was like to transition into the critical role of serving meals to our guests during a global pandemic. 

When did you start working at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes?

I started in March. I started three weeks before all the countywide shelter-in-place. The beginning of my fourth week we shut down the kitchen and did everything to-go; I recall it was the week of St. Patrick’s Day. 

Prior to joining Loaves & Fishes, where did you work?

I was an independent caterer as well as working at Conaway Ranch and Duck Club. During duck season I would do breakfast and lunches as well as cater events for them. I also volunteered at the VFW by supplying them with breakfast on Sundays. 

How long have you worked  in the food industry? 

I have been professionally cooking since 2009. I went to culinary school for four years; I got a Bachelor’s in Culinary Management and was able to gain fine dining experience while employed at Conaway Ranch. 

I remember having a brief conversation with you and you talked to me about starting a group home and working in social service. Can you provide a brief overview of that and what prompted you to want to offer that support to our community? 

So I graduated from Fresno State with a Bachelor’s in Criminology and I wanted to go into law enforcement or corrections. I joined the Arizona Department of Corrections in 1996 and I left in 1998. I wasn’t helping. There’s no help in that field, there’s just a lot of negativity. And so I moved back to Fresno and started working in group homes. I had no clue group homes existed. I didn’t know there were kids that didn’t have a home – it seemed unfathomable. So I started working in group homes. First I worked with adolescent sex offenders in Fresno and there was 36 adolescents throughout six homes. Working in that field, I realized they were cutting corners to reduce costs and the services weren’t being provided for the kids and that’s when I decided I wanted to do my own and get it done right. And so I moved to Stockton and opened Stockton Foundation Group Homes. We started with one home with six kids and by 2011, I had two homes with 12 kids, all wards of the court. I just wanted to give back. I wanted to do something positive. 

You mentioned initially that you wanted to be in law enforcement. What prompted that desire? Was there anything in particular about your life or any individual or mentors in your life that contributed to that initial goal? 

Both of my parents were in the military, so I lived a very structured life. I grew up all over, but primarily in Europe – Italy, Germany and England. So I had a very structured childhood. My parents were very authoritarian – that’s what I thought I wanted to do, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like I was helping anybody. And once I started in group homes, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. After the group homes I started cooking professionally, which I enjoyed, but I was still missing that giving part. So I started volunteering at the VFW and I would do their banquets – I was giving back. I did a year at the Salvation Army which I thought, “Hey, this is giving back. They’re doing good.” But it was very limited giving back; we only fed the 100 people that were in the shelter. If you were lucky enough to be in the shelter you got food, and if not, you didn’t get any. I peeked across the street and saw Loaves & Fishes. And I was like “Who are these people at Loaves & Fishes? What are they about?” I researched the Delany’s and their “why” and “what” and that’s when I realized, “That’s where I want to be. I want to get there.” Two years later, I saw an opening, applied and was offered a position. And I was excited. I was happy to be here. 

Now that you are on campus what have you learned about this place? What are your feelings and your sense of the campus, the people, the volunteers, our guests? 

A lot of our staff members, I noticed, they do it not for money, they do it for the heart. So at least two to three times a week, I attend the 6:45 a.m. meetings with the Friendship Park staff because that’s where I started to really understand this place. I really understood all of the unity, the team work, the goal, the mission. Those people are amazing. They’re out here on the street, they’re in the park, they care, and it keeps me motivated. 

When our services had to adjust, Mustard Seed came in and started to help serve, no kitchen experience at all. By week three, I had them cooking, “Stacy, Emily, you want to learn how to cook? We’re going to learn today.” I overheard them just two days ago saying, “I like the way this [to-go] box feels. This box feels good. I like the way these feel.” Stacy is usually stationed at the window where she offers the food to our guests and every now and then she’ll grab one and be like, “You guys, this one’s a little light” and she sends it back and they add food to it and it gets her approval. And it’s just funny because that’s how much they care about the guests – they care how much food they’re getting. 

Change – there’s a lot of change especially right now with all this going on. It doesn’t phase me – you just keep on moving. Because the main goal is to feed the people that need food and right now there’s a lot of them so we start making a lot more. Start cooking. Let’s do it.

Is there anything else you want to add about yourself, about how you feel? 

We are doing the extra 200 [meals for Sacramento Steps Forward to distribute to those sheltering in place in encampments] and it might go up a little more, and I’m excited about it. Feed as many as we can. Every Friday, I try to do a little something special for our staff that are still here. I understand that it can be exhausting and overwhelming and I want to thank them for being here. We had smoothies today and omelets a week ago and we’ll keep the surprises coming. 

The Luck of Friendship

Photo credit: Doug Winter

Richard Dobbs shares captivating stories about his years of hardship and adventure traveling across the country as we walk under the large green archway of Friendship Park. 

He speaks of working odd jobs, hopping freight trains, cooking meals over a campfire, and seeing a rare glimpse of America through the broken braces of a Union Pacific boxcar. 

The day is bright and touched with the warmth of spring as a strong wind dusts up around us. Richard recounts a lifetime of events, most of them in transit and on the move. He speaks of overcoming, thugs, and pool hall hustlers and the medical difficulties that have plagued him since childhood. 

Richard talks of fighting his way through a wake of judgment and prejudice. “I lost my jobs and housing because of my medical condition; landlords said I was a liability, and my employers would fire me. Anyways I’m old now. I could never ride the rails or sleep in hobo jungles today,” Richard says. 

His shiny white medical helmet covered in stickers show years of use and protection guarding Richard against the medical condition he overcomes daily.  

Photo credit: Doug Winter

Richard is creative and artistic; he enjoys writing too. He started painting and drawing again because Friendship Park offers an Art Day on Fridays. It’s run by Ginny, a Friendship Park volunteer.  

Richard and I step into a patch of shade outside a bungalow at Friendship Park, and Richard shares more stories with me about other people he’d traveled with like “The Oklahoma Kid,” “Big Jim,” and “Steamboat Joe.” 

I told Richard, “These stories are fascinating. If you write up your stories and make some drawings about the hobo life, I’ll publish them into a book.” 

“Are you serious?” Richard said. 

“Heck yes,” I said. 

We shook hands, and a creative partnership was forged. 

Richard saw me a week later and said, “I finished my book. It’s called Hobo Junction.” He handed me three handwritten composition books wholly filled with hobo stories and drawings. I typed up and edited Richard’s handwritten book of stories and scanned his artwork. I uploaded all of it to an online self-publishing portal and printed 25 copies. Richard sold out of the first printing of books within a week. He is a natural salesman. 

Richard and I meet up regularly now. We are working on his third book, a romance story. We had planned to have an art and book show in May of his work. We had intended to sell books, original drawings, and a new set of postcards. Richard would have read selected stories and poems from his book too. 

Then the virus hit the state of California, and the country shut down and our plans have had to change.

I think about the support system of Friendship Park, the green hats, Program Director George, and all the volunteers helping those who live outside and how important it is to help, especially now. The Park remains open, and everyone continues to assist in the face of danger. 

I hope we can look at our community leaders to be kind and reach out to those who are having a difficult time. I believe through this awful and unprecedented historical time, it can bring out the best in us. I see it at Friendship Park, and it’s an excellent example of help, support, and kindness. It was a vital asset of help and refuge to our community long before the virus locked our doors.  

I checked in with Richard yesterday, and he said, “When everything is safe, and we can go outside and meet up again, the show will go on.” 

I agreed. The show will go on. 

You can read a preview and buy Richard’s books here:

You can read the original story I wrote about Richard on my blog: 

Read about Richard and others living outside caught up in the wretched time of the COVID-19 crisis.

To Serve the Least of These

Mustard Seed School team member supporting the Sacramento Loaves & Fishes Dining Room.

Four weeks ago I greeted my preschool students at my classroom door with their choice of a high-five, a handshake, or a hug. There was a feeling of uncertainty in our program as talk of countywide school closures due to COVID-19 signaled the potential for Mustard Seed to close its doors to a regular academic day. One of my students, an energetic lover of all things glue and scissors, turned 5 that day. We celebrated with a morning birthday circle and cupcakes and juice boxes brought by the birthday girl’s mom at lunchtime. It was the first and last day for my youngest student, who had recently turned 3, and I was worried his mom might be upset when she picked him up and saw his cheeks and hands stained with red dye from his celebratory cupcake.

Fast forward one week, and my classroom, along with the other four Mustard Seed classrooms, were closed. Our office remained open. Our Outreach Coordinator, Lucia, made phone calls to parents and shelters, checking in with our students, offering whatever services were available. But were they still our students? Where were the families we were unable to contact? Were they safe? How do we continue to help as the guidelines for protecting ourselves and each other from getting sick get tighter every day?

My duties as a Montessori preschool teacher at a school for children experiencing homelessness felt obsolete, and my new role became support for other programs at Loaves & Fishes still serving and meeting the survival needs of our guests in a pandemic. Mustard Seed staff began checking in with Maryhouse, Friendship Park, and the Dining Room, hoping to help. For the past few weeks, we have been supporting in any way possible. A few of us have been making hygiene kits, sorting donations, and restocking items handed to guests by gloved hands through the Maryhouse front entrance. Other staff have worked in the service center at Friendship Park and handed out lunch tickets to our guests. All of us have found ourselves prepping and serving lunch in the dining room. We have tried to be more of a help than a nuisance, and we have found ourselves in awe of the unique work and skills required of each program.

It has been in the dining room, the heartbeat of Loaves & Fishes, where my compassion and understanding of the guest has been fortified. I am struck, daily, by the resiliency of the men and women who go to sleep in a tent each night, thrown away by our society, who wake up each morning ready to live, and make their way to Loaves & Fishes for a hot meal. It has been the act of handing hot meals in a styrofoam container through a window to 400 men and women each day that has solidified my faith in the work of the saints around me and the mission of this holy place.

I am still a teacher, holding space in my heart for my students and their families. While my teaching duties are on hold, I remain committed to the philosophy and intention of Loaves & Fishes: to serve the least of these.

Embracing the Unexpected

When we learned that our services would be reduced in the wake of the pandemic, it could be presumed that there was a collective sigh of relief, but also an unexpressed guilt. The relief that staff and volunteers would be able to practice appropriate self care and necessary health precautions, but an even greater uncertainty as to how this would affect our guests – this coming at a time of abnormally cool and wet weather for Sacramento in March. 

Warm meals were still offered to our guests, but instead of dining inside, they were handed containers with food. I watched as some headed to the streets outside of the campus or returned to Friendship Park for their meal. I watched as a woman gathered her belongings outside of Maryhouse and glancing down, I acknowledged her feet – covered only in socks and a pair of slippers. I offered her a slight smile and wondered if that was insulting considering the circumstances. 

As we wait for the city to offer temporary shelter for our guests, we wonder if this is enough. If we are offering enough. If we are advocating enough. We ask ourselves “why” and sometimes unrelentingly question our actions and behaviours and wonder if any of this is creating an impact in the positive direction of change. We have to create the necessary boundaries for ourselves to maintain the necessary emotional well-being to return to these same questions every day; but as humans, as empathetic persons, we find it more difficult on some days to separate ourselves from the sense that we are responsible for our guests. 

While I am only one of many staff and volunteers on our campus, I do recognize we are all similar in spirit. So I recognize that I am just one of many that walks on campus lost in my own thoughts. As I exited the Annex one morning recently, I immediately released myself from these thoughts and became a  witness to simple joy. A boy, possibly slightly older than two years of age, was pumping his little legs up and down in a puddle that had developed from the overnight rain. He seemed oblivious to everyone around him and I looked up and made eye contact with his mother. She said, “He is in the wrong shoes for that but…” She trailed off knowing I would fill in the blanks, “But he is having so much fun and I live to see him smile.” I continued walking and he stopped stomping and reached down with his toddler sized gloved hand to tenuously reach down and touch his smiling reflection. 

His mother, with his sibling, were slowly walking towards their vehicle and she called for him. As with most children, he was hesitant to leave his fun, but already knew better, even at his young age, than to create too much conflict with his mom. He toddled towards her and his sibling and I waved goodbye and also verbalized “bye bye.” In his loudest voice, he said “bye” and waved. I turned around and walked down North C Street in the opposing direction. A couple of seconds later I hear “bye,” punctuated by another “bye” a second after. I paused, turned slightly and realized he had stopped in the middle of North C Street, looking in my direction, and was saying goodbye to me still. I stopped, turned around, repeated my wave and “bye.” He seemed now satisfied with my response and followed his mother and sibling to their van. 

On this day, at least, I felt satisfied with the “why.”