Sunday, March 22, 2015

Saint John's - A Place for Hope and Dreams

Tiffany and Michele Steeb, CEO
Tiffany has a gorgeous, sunny smile and bright, clear eyes. She is gloriously happy, perhaps for the first time in years...or maybe even her life. She has a roof over her head, her son with her, and a bright future. This is in stark contrast to just six months ago when she and her son were living in her car and she was (and still is) dealing with custody battles with her in-laws. She had been homeless for over a year, living in her car and on friend's couches. Tiffany represents the growing number of homeless families in Sacramento and her happy smile is due to one thing - finding help at Saint John's.

Saint John's Program for Change is a charity that was founded in 1985 on the footsteps of St. John's Lutheran Church. It's mission is to help women in crisis come to grips with their lives, battle their demons, and through education, assistance, and a job program, lead them to a new life of independence, productivity, and self sufficiency.

I had recently been asked to come to one of Saint John's guest chef dinners, which we'll get to later. I had been to the dinners before and have ready many posts and articles about them. I wanted to know more.  I wanted to know about the program leading up to the Plates Cafe and to the success stories that come from Saint John's.

I was invited to go to the volunteer orientation that they hold twice a month at their headquarters. On this Saturday there were a few women and a family with three children there for the orientation. Lucky for us, our orientation leader this day was sick and so who should be filling in but Michele Steeb, the CEO of Saint John's.

Steeb has been with Saint John's since the beginning and so there really was no better person to give us the history. She explained how over the last few years we have seen an increase in homelessness across the nation, but particularly in families. While single men and women have increased at a rate of about 20%, homeless families have been increasing at a rate of 35%, we just don't see it.  Unlike the individuals we see wandering the streets, the families are called the "invisible homeless" because they often find temporary refuge in spare rooms, shelters, or cars. The general public rarely see the children.

At the beginning Saint John's had been a nightly shelter for these families. They would open their doors for the evening and then send everyone out and close up during the day. This went on for over a decade until they decided that they needed to do more than provide a safe place at night, they needed to help these women and families to become self-sufficient and so they started an education and job service program.

"These women had nothing, including resources for if their children became sick and they needed to take time off from work. They needed jobs that would be flexible and so we thought of the food industry where people often trade shifts when needed," says Steeb.

Pre guest chef dinner at Plates Cafe
The program became Saint John's Plates Cafe, a working, educational cafe located at the Sacramento Army Depot. The cafe serves weekday lunches and then provides catering services and hosts special events. The women in the job program learn to be cooks, servers, and managers and will eventually graduate and find placement in local area restaurants and catering services. Once a month they hold a guest chef dinner where a local restaurant chef prepares a four-course meal and ticket sales help to raise money for Saint John's work.

Prepping in the Plates kitchen
Soon after Saint John's inherited the on-site day care facility and added day-care training and licensing to their job program under the name First Steps. Then in 2013 they opened a second Plates location downtown. Plates2Go serves lunch items such as sandwiches and soups and gives them another location to continue their food service training.

But there is a lot of work the women have to do before they can even start thinking of job training.

First is getting accepted into the program. There is currently a waiting list of about a month before women can enter the first facility. The main Saint John's facility consists of two buildings. The administration and offices are located in the Hope building and the living facility is called the Dream building.

The Kings sponsored room
Inside Dream there are 31 family rooms and 3 rooms for individuals to triple up in. (Tiffany stayed in the individuals' room until she could bring her son in.) Here the women have a safe, clean environment to stay with their children while going through the program. The facility includes a multi-purpose room, dining room, laundry room, and daycare.

The most important aspect is the education and support.  That means everything from AA and NA meetings for those sobering up, to GED, computer, parenting, and mental health classes that help them to empower their lives. In fact, until they fulfill the requirements for the counseling and education, they can't move on to the next facility.

After several months at the main facility women can move to the second facility where the living is a bit more relaxed and lenient. They can stay here until they graduate the programs and then they move to the final location, an apartment complex.  Saint John's will supplement their rent payment for a while and eventually the women must become fully self-sufficient and pay the whole rent. Many families stay at the facility after finishing the program because they like all of the support and being with other Saint John's families.

And so we are back at Plates Cafe where I started earlier in the month. Tonight's guest chef is Molly Hawks from Hawks restaurant in Granite Bay. She's a couple of degrees of separation from Saint John's as her friend teaches yoga to the women. Her menu has included gravlax and porchetta and the women are in the kitchen helping her staff to plate the food for the diners.

I meet Andrea who has been at Saint John's since last August. She has two daughters and looking forward to a clean and sober life with them. Her goal is to be an example to her daughters of what not to do (her past) and what the better path in life is, education and working. After working different parts of the cafe, she says she prefers the front of house so she can interact with guests. After she graduates she'll be helped with job placement. Some of the restaurants that have taken graduates include Mulvaney's, Ten22, and Dad's Kitchen.

This year marks the 30th anniversary for Saint John's. "It's a good and a bad thing to celebrate," says Steeb. "It's great how much we have grown and are able to help, but it's sad that the need is growing instead of shrinking. In a perfect world, Saint John's would become obsolete."

You can find out about the next chef's dinner here.

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