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An Unexpected Christmas Gift

Dear Friends,

This year we started our Christmas season early and unaware. In fact it started last November in a very small, quiet way. We received a call from another agency in SF about two special needs high school boys that were needing a place to engage. They said they were having a difficult time finding an organization that would take on the challenge. Well, we’ve never been ones to shy away from a challenge so we agreed to meet the kids. After meeting with these two amazing boys how could we say no?

Mutasem agreed to teach them how to cook. There were concerns on many fronts about bringing these boys into this mix. Special needs kids with severe learning challenges is not our area of expertise. Would these kids be welcomed in? Would they get bullied? Would they feel like this is their family too? We were more than a little concerned about the possibilities this might present. As a staff though, we felt determined to give it a try and be diligent to create safety for all youth involved.

Before long the two mushroomed into 4 then 6 then 8. These boys were bringing their friends. They were finding a place they felt they belonged. They weren’t separated out as different, but they “owned” the café. They were cooking for everyone in the center each day—and who doesn’t love a cook?

As the days went by this Café Crew became more and more comfortable with us and in the center. They began to joke and banter with the other kids. Walking through the center I saw one of the Upsquad youth teaching one of our new Café Crew how to do something on the computer and it was magical. We began to see kids who we thought might feel intimidated come in and feel as much like they owned this place as kids in the studio who have been here for years.

One day this summer I went into the café while Mutasem and Jake (our son who was home from college) were doing an Icebreaker with the Café Crew. Jake asked them what their favorite type of music was. I don’t know why, but I was surprised when they started saying Rap and Hip Hop. When they were then asked who some of their favorite artists were they began to say “Mystic Blaze”, “Kid Flame” and others. These are Upstar artists! I was just stunned and my heart was overjoyed.

This could not have been scripted, legislated or planned. It had to be authentic and organic. Is it possible that youth who in many ways have been written off by society because they are seen as “thugs”, “criminals” and often show up in the world ready for a fight could find a common language with kids who are written off by society because they are seen as “slow”, “socially awkward” and often show up in the world ready to be made fun of? What sort of magic is this?

Ron and I learned years ago to get out of the way and let things happen around us. It’s an interesting way to approach our work. Often as adults we kill the organic magic by trying to adult all over it. There was no forced relationships in this situation. No trumped up kum ba yah moments. I constantly stand back and watch as human connection heals broken hearts and spirits. Feeling like we belong and are truly wanted allows us to be our best selves.

We are a work in progress and we aren’t perfect. On any given day you might see fights or tears if you came to visit. That is part of the journey, but I guarantee you will also see young people and adults working together to figure out how to keep moving forward through the good, the bad and the ugly. Sadness is such a large part of the fabric of our community that it can feel overwhelming and pervasive. But as we look into our “jar of hope” and remember the smiles and the small steps forward out of brokenness, we rejoice.

This year, because of your generosity and kindness to us:

281 high-risk young people were involved in Digital Arts training giving them a positive diversion from potentially risky or destructive behavior.

15 high school students received employment through our innovative youth-run record label, Upstar Records.

83 youth and young adults (13-24) were involved in our Violence Response program providing them with Case Management support to help them stabilize and navigate difficult systems. I am thrilled to mention that 97% of the young people who had committed criminal offenses this year did not reoffend after entering our program. 45% of the youth entering our program had a previous violent offense however, none of them have committed another offense since.

60 families were provided with coaching and support through our Family Support Program encouraging positive family relationships with parents of teens and teen parents.

21 original songs were written, performed, recorded and produced by our youth to create our new cd “Rise”.

Too many things happen each day to be able to name them all here. I wish I could share with you the faces and stories of each of these loved ones. I have been asked to speak at a women’s event in January and to share my story. As I’ve thought about the journey that brought me to this day, in this coffee shop, writing this letter, I am overwhelmed with emotion. Much of my attention and emotional energy these last months has been consumed with Ferguson and all that is connected to it. I have felt exhausted and deeply saddened over much of what I’ve read and seen. The thought of writing a letter to you that was about anything else seemed unimaginable. And yet as I’ve pondered our last year I am struck by the amazing gift of redemption that has played out in our little corner of the city. It sounds trite and just too easy but a foundation of love and acceptance coupled with the willingness to sit with others in their pain creates a space that can be held sacred by all who enter. There have been many people through the years who say, “there is just something different here, I felt it when I walked in.”

It is a true honor to be invited to the table to eat with these wounded and beautiful souls. To be called mom, momma Dawn, gramma and friend is balm to my soul. I can’t imagine my life in any other setting. The magical, redemption of love and relationship is the Christmas gift we give and will continue to give. Thank you for being on this sacred journey of the soul with us and trusting us to invest your money where it will have bigger dividends. This next year we will continue to “…seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and may you find an unexpected gift this year too.

Humbled and Amazed,



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