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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Teaching Me To Love With No Boundaries

Anabelle outside her Mustard Seed office.

Annabelle started her journey with Mustard Seed last year as a Jesuit Volunteer where she embraced the Jesuit values of: spirituality, a simple lifestyle, community living, and social justice.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) is the largest lay Catholic full-time volunteer program in the world. They aim to aspire the creation of a more just and hopeful world. Therefore, this service program “engages passionate young people in vital service with poor communities, fostering the growth of leaders committed to faith in action”(JVC).

Annabelle has remained with Mustard Seed as a student resource specialist. Therefore, she tests all the students that come to Mustard Seed to see where they are at academically. From there, Annabelle works with the teachers in developing an appropriate academic curriculum for the students to follow throughout their time at Mustard Seed, so that they are as prepared as possible for when they enroll into public school (i.e. tutoring).

She also attends Sacramento County’s homeless task force meetings with homeless liaisons to discuss ways to give children who are experiencing homelessness the necessary resources and tools to receive a successful education.

Below you will find Annabelle’s reflection on a family that taught her how to love with no boundaries. 

Driving the children to and from their motels was one of the biggest highlights for me as a JV last year. I had the opportunity to drive a family of 5 for three months – a family that lifted me up and added onto the miracles, love, and compassion of Mustard Seed that I had felt the very first day I started working there. This family of 5 was always so incredibly excited to go to school and had such a strong family bond that was so visible from a mile away. I vividly remember during our car rides driving through a neighborhood to and from their motel and the children would point out houses that they would hope to one day live in – “That brown house! That could fit all of us!” They were always so optimistic despite the situation they were in because they had each other.

The last day of school was one of the hardest days for me at Mustard Seed. I prepared myself all week for that day, as I knew I was going to have to say my last goodbye to many of the children. In addition to saying goodbye to those children, I also had to brace myself for the goodbye that was going to come for this family of 5. I drove into the parking lot of the SkyRider motel, parked the car, and all 5 children unbuckled, got out of their seats, said their goodbyes and gave me their hugs, and walked into their motel room. And as children, I don’t think it crossed their mind that it may be the last time they saw me. I said bye to mom and drove away and the moment I left, tears fell down my face as reality hit me that that was the last time I was going to see them.

A week went by and the Mustard Seed summer program started. My co-JV, Emily, and I were in charge of planning a field trip based summer program for the kids and Emily and I were determined to give them the best summer they ever had. As opposed to during the school year where sign-ins are in the front office, sign-ins were now on the playground. We took out playground equipment, had all our forms, and were ready for the summer program to start. Many of the kids during the academic school year saw the flyers that were posted in the office, so they knew about the program. One of the 5 children asked their mom during one car ride if they could attend, but mom did not know how they would get there because transportation was not offered during the summer. I didn’t expect for them to come, but the miracles of Mustard Seed truly played out.

For a brief moment, I went to the PE closet to get a ball out for a child and that was when I heard Emily yell one of the names of the children & this family came running onto the playground. The family I was so sad about saying goodbye to, the family I thought I would never see once more, was there. My heart was so incredibly full.

The last day of summer program was another hard day, but once again, they came through that gate and came running onto the playground. Saying goodbye to this family for a second time was honestly more difficult than the first, but I’m forever grateful for the time I was given with them. This family, those children, changed my life completely. I have been blessed to be a part of their lives and them in mine. And despite how many times I say it, the children at Mustard Seed teach me more than I do to them – so to each child that I have had the privilege of spending time with, thank you for making me smile on my hardest days, for every hug that lifted my spirits up, and most importantly, for teaching me to love with no boundaries. I’m advocating for each one of you always.

Check out Mustard Seed’s Amazon Wish List .

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Call (916)-447-3626 to learn more about Mustard Seed and to find out how you can show your support!

Trains Planes and Automobiles, But Really Mostly Just Trains

MaryKate is participating with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) as an Outreach Assistant for Mustard Seed.  

JVC is the largest lay Catholic full-time volunteer program in the world. They aim to aspire the creation of a more just and hopeful world. Therefore, this service program “engages passionate young people in vital service with poor communities, fostering the growth of leaders committed to faith in action”(JVC).   Continue reading to learn how trains connect with Mustard Seed’s students. 

When I was three, my uncle bought me a train set for Christmas that he set up under our tree. I have vague memories of this, mostly fed by my uncle’s continued interest in all things train-related—photographing trains, touring retired trains, riding a train just for the sake of riding a train… But other than this snippet of memory from my childhood, I have not often focused on trains other than a vehicle by which to get from point A to point B. This changed when I started working at Mustard Seed in August. On August 23rd, the first day of school, trains became a very important part of my life. Here are some things I have learned about trains since then:

Mustard Seed students attended a field trip to the California State Railroad Museum.

1.     “Can I play with the trains?” is something that you will hear (conservatively) four-five times a day if there are trains in your office. The asking will be relentless; crying may ensue.

2.     Trains are gender all-inclusive toys. Don’t let the marketing industry tell you otherwise. Everyone loves trains. Every child will beeline for a train set immediately upon entering a room with a train set. Every. Single. Child. Without fail. Every time.

3.     Your primary function in the lives of many if not most of the children will, at least initially, be The Teacher With The Trains. You will become the gatekeeper to the trains. This is the sole purpose you will serve. The trains may make you powerful. Use this power wisely.

4.     It is 2017 and technology is Ruler Supreme, but all screens are forgotten when presented with train tracks and a plethora of toy trains from which to choose. Long, uninterrupted conversations with parents may be had when there are trains to serve as a distraction.

5.     Some people discover their passions at a young age. Some people are passionate about trains. If you are helping a train-enthusiast seven-year-old with his morning journal entry, and the prompt is, “What is your favorite type of weather?” the answer will be trains. If the prompt is, “What makes you happy?” the answer will be trains. If the prompt is, “What is your favorite thing to eat?” the answer will probably be chicken, but he will draw a picture of trains.

6.     Sometimes, this same seven year old may ask you to help him draw a train. I would suggest practicing your train-drawing skills beforehand, because train-enthusiasts (even young ones, apparently) are not afraid to critique an inaccurate rendering of a train when they see one. You have to draw trains with more wheels than cars. I learned this the hard way.

7.     If you do not have access to a train set, worms are a close second. After time spent gardening in Mustard Seed’s two gardening plots with our K-2nd graders, I’ve observed that trains and worms seem to generally attract the same fan-base. And it is an avid fan-base indeed.

8.     A caveat about trains and worms: A toy train is okay to send home with a child. Moms like toy trains. Moms do not like worms. Do not let said child show their mom the worms they collected that day, no matter how excited they are about their worms. The mom will not be pleased. The mom may even be disgusted. Send home a toy train instead.

9.     If it is the first field trip of the school year—the first field trip ever for many of our students—go to the train museum. You will witness pure expressions of joy that, in grown-up equivalencies, are probably only matched at weddings or births (if even then). Everyone will be excited about the train museum. Refer to point 2.

10.  Childhood looks like childhood looks like childhood. That is, kids will be kids and trains will bring joy no matter where the child slept the night before. There is a beautiful consistency in the reaction a child has upon recognizing a train set: the excitement, the explorative energy, and the pointedly focused play that will ensue (a sort of focus I have rarely witnessed anywhere else, with children or adults). It is simple, and it is powerful.

In conclusion, it is important to pay attention to trains. It is important to think about memories of trains you might have from your own childhood. It is important to thank your uncle for the train set he got you when you were three, because who knew how important this childhood point of reference would become for you twenty years later. Whenever you see a train, perhaps you should take notes. That way, the next time a seven year old asks for help with his journal entry, you will be prepared to draw a train with the correct number of wheels.

Check out Mustard Seed’s Amazon Wish List .

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Call (916)-447-3626 to learn more about Mustard Seed and to find out how you can show your support!

Happy World Teacher’s Day!

Happy World Teacher’s Day!

To celebrate, North C Street Stories is going to feature Mustard Seed School for the month of October. We will be gaining insight from our wonderful teachers, students, and families. And to begin, here is a short history of Mustard Seed:

Established in 1989 to help meet the needs of homeless children, Mustard Seed is a free, private school for children ages 3 to 15. They provide a safe, nurturing environment, positive learning, happy memories, survival resources of food, clothing, and shelter referrals, medical and dental screenings, immunization updates, counseling for children and their parents, and assistance entering or reentering public schools.

Mustard Seed follows the Montessori Method of education, therefore in each classroom “there is a present, future curriculum already in place: the peace curriculum. With the peace curriculum, the only rule is to respect each other, the environment, and ourselves” (Chakira-teacher at Mustard Seed).

There is a time out corner in each Mustard Seed classroom where students can take some time to themselves and savor solitude.

By following the Montessori Method of education, students are able to build a strong, stable foundation for their education before they enter or reenter into public schools.

Many of Mustard Seed’s students are arriving un-enrolled from school because the places their families find to sleep are often not near a school and they only plan to stay in that location for a short period of time. Plus, sometimes a school will request an address or updated immunizations which homeless families cannot provide. This leaves many children out of the school system. Yet, in spite of their situations, the children arrive at Mustard Seed eager to learn and to be accepted.

A volunteer helps a Mustard Seed student journal.

Anywhere from fifteen to thirty-five children attend Mustard Seed each day. And the average stay is only three to four weeks. Some of the students have been out of the school system for a long time and need help going back. Therefore, a major goal for Mustard Seed is to prepare and enroll homeless children into public schools once families have found housing stability.

4500 individual children have participated in Mustard Seed since the school began in 1989.


Last week I sat down with Stacy, one of our Pre-school teachers. It is her first year teaching, but her fourth year with Mustard Seed. Stacy began her journey with Mustard Seed as the Student Resources Associate, eventually transitioning into Pre-school teacher this year.  Here is a re-cap of the interview:

“Magical. Just magical”.

That is exactly how Stacy would describe Mustard Seed. And she is exactly right. The moment you walk into the courtyard, you can feel this sense that something magical is happening here. There is a feeling of comfort and love as you walk past the murals on each cottage-style classroom. You cannot visit Mustard Seed and not feel the magic that surrounds the air as children escape the stress of homelessness for the day, rebuilding their educational foundations. And through this magic, a major challenge for Stacy is accepting that every day will be unique. This is because 1) Mustard Seed follows the Montessori Method and 2) children are always transitioning back into public schools.

Two Mustard Seed students collaborate on a classroom project.

But, even with that challenge, Stacy believes that the best apart about working here is that she can simply come here, give herself, and love freely. The kids are eager to learn and simply seeking a place of acceptance. And Mustard Seed fosters an environment for exactly that. The simplicity of what children need to feel support is the best part about working for Mustard Seed.

Lastly, what do you wish the greater Sacramento community knew about Mustard Seed?

“I wish the greater Sacramento community understood that the families here are just like you and me. They care just as much for their kids as we do and that these kids have parents that love them”.

Check out Mustard Seed’s Amazon Wish List .

Keep up with Mustard Seed on Facebook!

Call (916)-447-3626 to learn more about Mustard Seed and to find out how you can show your support!