Every night the San Diego Rescue Mission shelters hundreds of homeless people, including dozens of kids. The county’s population of homeless children is in the thousands, with that number growing each year. Fortunately, there is hope for some of these families with the recently opened Children’s Center—an on-site preschool offered to homeless kids sheltering at the Mission.
There are multiple reasons why a preschool for homeless kids is so important not only for the kids, but also for their parents.
“These parents are completely stressed, with no energy—and the poverty, hunger and trauma that goes along with that,” says Christina Serafine, director of the Children’s Center. “Kids show delays in development due to the inability to explore their environment. Maybe it’s not safe, or maybe they are in strollers all the time. They have severe language delays, an inability to express themselves emotionally, and are lacking the ability to make friends. These kids are in need of extra support.”
The Children’s Center was formed to help kids, first and foremost, feel safe and secure that they belong somewhere. Once this safe space welcomes the kids in, teachers can begin to address special needs and developmental delays. Ultimately, kids develop the abilities to learn, make friends and feel loved.
The preschool offers a 1:4 teacher-to-student ratio, much lower than the state-mandated 1:12. Because of this, teachers are equipped to give the extra help and attention these kids need. Serafine shares that some of these young children are already using swear words and acting out inappropriately, hitting and biting. Teachers instruct and demonstrate appropriate ways to speak to others in order to get one’s needs met. The overall experience completely changes the way the kids view the world.
Despite the unconventional attendees and their unique needs, in many ways the preschool operations are quite customary. A 7 a.m. opening time allows parents to drop off kids when the shelter closes for the day. A typical schedule includes indoor activities and outdoor play. Teachers offer circle time, painting, dancing, musical instruments, reading, storytelling, singing songs, eating healthy foods and, of course, naptime. The curriculum makes it much more than daycare—the program is designed to be educational, aiming to bring the kids up to speed with their peers. Initially welcoming 11 students ages 2–5, the preschool will slowly expand to include up to 30 kids and an infant/toddler program.
The Children’s Center allows parents the opportunity to take steps towards their own recoveries and put their lives back together. Without the struggle of keeping their kids safe on the streets during the 12 hours the shelter is closed each day, they are free to seek housing, go to school or job interviews, get counseling and work temporary jobs. In this way, the preschool is transitioning entire families off the streets and breaking the desperate cycle of homelessness.
Herb Johnson, president and CEO of the spiritually guided San Diego Rescue Mission, suggests that some in our community are not always supportive of the homeless and reminds all to be empathetic.
“I think that people sometimes look at the homeless population with disdain,” says Johnson. “[Some people say] ‘They’re just alcoholics or drug-addicts’, but the population is composed of somebody’s daughter, son, mother, brother—all human beings that have lost their way. We are going to service them with what they need to get off the street and into housing that the rest of the people in our country enjoy because they’ve made better choices or have had better resources.”
According to San Diego County’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless, about 8,500 men, women and children were homeless in San Diego County in January 2014. Of those, a relatively small 19 percent are considered chronic substance abusers.
Almost all of the Children Center’s funding comes from private donations. If you’d like to help the program expand to benefit more of our city’s homeless kids, they welcome monetary donations, playground equipment and volunteers. Immediate goals include funding a renovation of the rooftop playground, adding more shade, therapeutic play apparatus and trees and flowers for a less industrial ambiance. Perhaps most important, they’d appreciate a clubhouse-style climbing structure, allowing the kids to play “house.”
“It’s going to take a whole city to help our kids,” Serafine says. “I just want people to realize that every little bit we do to help is going to break the cycle of homelessness. Together, we can make this happen.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.sdrescue.org.
Lisa Pawlak is an Encinitas resident, freelance writer and mother of two boys. She is a regular contributor to San Diego Family Magazine.
Published: November 2014