The February 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Top 20 Meanest Cities in U.S.

Hate Crimes in Fort Lauderdale

Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poor People

Housing Authority's Kafka-Style Interrogation

Bay Area Transit: Separate and Unequal

Lawsuit on Behalf of East Bay Bus Riders

MLK Would Tell Congress to Value Workers

Art, Music for Homeless Kids

Mercy: A Story

The Birdman of Berkeley

Resisting Unjust Corporate Power

President Bush Speaks His Mind

Street Spirit Poetry


January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Art, Music, Studies and Fun for Homeless Kids in Berkeley

by Janny Castillo, BOSS Community Organizer

Homeless children create art and delight in play at Berkeley's Children's Learning Center. Janny Castillo photo

Nancy has made serving homeless children her life's purpose. She ensures that, besides academics, the children have access to every resource through the school districts.

As you walk through the grounds of Ursula Sherman Village, a project of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), you might see Rafael playing a game of "duck, duck, goose" with a group of children. On another day, you will see Rafael playing music and teaching yoga, or he might be showing kids how to grow plants.

As you walk into an old double trailer, named the Children's Learning Center (CLC), you see young boys and girls engaged in painting or sculpting or drawing with Jill, and others doing their academic work. The CLC provides opportunities for children to explore their potential to create community while growing in areas that they don't have a chance to during episodes of homelessness.

Nancy, a credentialed teacher who has worked at the CLC for over 15 years, is pleased by the enhanced program. For many years, she held up all the corners of the program; but its expansion by 10 families made it impossible for this superheroine to manage sometimes more than 25 children at a time.

Even with all the diversity of activities, the focus continues to be on "Homework Comes First." Nancy, a longtime teacher in the Oakland Unified School District, is now working in the Berkeley School System as a consultant to the complex realities of the current state of education.

"There are many kinds of activities in our local schools that are neglected," Nancy says. "We emphasize academics; homeless children as a whole have a tendency to fall behind academically."

Rafael describes the lack of resources that poor families face. "Children who are homeless tend to move around a lot, creating instability," he says. Poor single parents have a difficult time when they are housed; and not having a place to stay compounds the situation exponentially.
Faced with daily worries about where to go and how to feed their kids, the homeless parent and the children walk into the shelter often in a state of despair and frustration. BOSS is one of the few organizations that places the needs of the children at the same level as the needs of parents.

When asked about their roles in the Children's Learning Center, the collective response sums it up: "We very strongly believe that the educational system as it is currently designed focuses on intellect, rote memorization and not developing critical thinking. The ability to make distinctions and make good decisions comes from the awareness of what a child is feeling and managing the energies happening inside so that the world that comes at them is more manageable. They begin to learn not to react, but to respond, impacting upon their ability to excel academically."

Rafael teaches some of the older children the game of chess. "It emphasizes thinking ahead, thinking in steps, cause-and-effect relationships and having a plan. The same set of skills is required to attend school, get a job and is critical to a person's long-term survival."

Because it can affect the emotional state, he also uses music a lot. "It engages a different part of the brain, and the children react to it in different ways. Some kids feel awkward while others are comfortable moving and dancing. There was one child who, in the beginning, sat on the side, but eventually got drawn in because the kids were enjoying themselves. After awhile, he felt more confident and now has fun."

Jill, the CLC's art teacher, describes her program's approach: "The art program for homeless children combines therapeutic and artistic approaches. The therapeutic approach includes the encouragement of a harmonious, relaxed, positive, and non-critical attitude among the children, and the artistic approach contains the principles of the creative art method." The children experience creating art through clay, painting and watercolor.

Rafael describes how the CLC's activities help the family return to wholeness: "We create a safe space for the children to open up and discuss problems they may be having at school or at home." CLC staff members work closely with case managers to ensure that the family is receiving the core of services they need.

Jill describes the change that occurred in one of her students: "This seven-year-old girl in the beginning was withdrawn, shy, unable to verbalize, and her artwork was at a two-year-old level." Jill noticed that she had a high level of concentration in her art activities. After four months of working with the CLC, the girl improved so much that she began painting flowers, people and landscapes, and making clay objects by herself. "She is still shy, but her level of self-confidence has risen, and now she speaks, laughs and behaves like a typical seven-year-old," Jill says.

Deni, a mom living at Sankofa House, shared that her son's schoolwork improved with Nancy's help. Her seven-year-old son Jonathon says, "When I do art with Jill or work with Rafael, it puts me in a whole new world."

Every day after school, Daizahnique, age 10, asks her mother excitedly if she can go to the trailer. As she holds her baby sister in her arms, she takes the time to share her feelings about the CLC. "I like the art and drawing and making stuff. My mom always keeps the good stuff. When we had our own home, I made a turkey and my mom would put it up with her good stuff."

Lavonya, Diazahnique's mom, likes the extra time that the Center gives her to take care of household needs, and she really appreciates having a teacher on site. She says, "Nancy helps me a lot because I graduated from high school in '95 and my daughter is getting algebra in the 4th grade. I didn't get algebra until the 9th grade. So I go to Nancy and she teaches me and refreshes my memory and it's all good again."

Nancy has a thorough knowledge of the special needs of homeless children and acts as a liaison between the school districts to ensure that all school-age children, including pre-school, are placed accordingly and treated fairly. She has helped many families with transportation, after-school care and arranging for special education when needed.

Nancy has made serving homeless children her life's purpose. She ensures that, besides academics, the children have access to every resource through the school districts. Through her efforts many of the children go to summer camp every year.

Rafael said that the focus of his work is for the children to see themselves and their lives in a different light. "Through our study of music, we learn patterns. Without a sense of pattern, what we have is randomness. The situation of homelessness teaches that life is random, life is chaotic. What the children begin to understand that life does have a unified pattern that makes sense, they can apply that pattern to themselves. The likelihood of negative behavior patterns that lead to trouble later in life is significantly reduced."

On March 30, 2006, Artists with Heart is holding an event that will raise much-needed funds to support the Children's Learning Center. The funds will help sustain services so the CLC's children can prosper and avoid intergenerational homelessness and poverty.

They are asking local artists to donate art work, local restaurants to donate food, and for the community to attend and buy a piece of art on behalf of a homeless child. Children's art pieces made through the CLC will be on display.

The event will be held at the First Congregational Church at 2345 Channing Way in Berkeley from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. with special guest KQED's Josh Kornbluth. To contribute to the event or for more information, please call Janny at BOSS at (510) 649-1930 or e-mail To support the Children's Learning Center's program call boona cheema at (510) 649-1930.

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

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