To observe Jacqui on the job is to witness a public servant constantly on the move, making a daily difference in the lives of the children. Photo by Jennifer Cortez.

Meet the woman who puts the family in Buena Vista Horace Mann school’s family shelter

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The scene that unfolds outside of Buena Vista Horace Mann might be unremarkable on any school day. But it is extraordinary on a Friday evening when school is out for the summer and the parents and kids gathered outside, reconnecting like old friends, are there to check in for the night.

Walking toward the school’s blue gate on Valencia Street, a petite and cheerful woman immediately welcomes and embraces the children.

As she unlocks the gate, her name is called: “Jacqui! Jacqui!”

She whirls around and her face visibly lights up.

“Quién está aquí?!” she exclaims, fully aware of the answer. (“Who’s here?!”)

With his arms outstretched, a child runs to hug her.

“One,” she counts, as other children immediately crowd her for their hugs and kisses at the top of their heads.

“Two! Three,” she continues. “Four. Four? Four?”

A boy appears to be a little grumpy. The woman and the boy’s mother exchange knowing looks.

“Four?”

Hesitantly, he hugs her and lingers for a moment. His demeanor changes slightly and, shuffling his feet, he follows the other kids into the school.

Another child sneaks up behind Jacqui while he eagerly awaits his turn. With a mischievous smile on his face, he wraps his arms around her with gusto and hugs her so tightly, he tries to lift her off the ground.

“Five!”

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Jacqui is the school and community engagement manager for the Stay Over Program, the emergency shelter within the K-8 dual immersion school that has allowed homeless or housing-insecure students and their families to spend the night since November 2018.

Operated by Dolores Street Community Services, Jacqui is typically at the school site from the early or late afternoon until the lights are out. To observe her on the job is to witness a public servant constantly on the move, making a daily difference in the lives of the children.

She is an example of how one individual can make the difference between success and failure, between warmth and indifference. I noticed her interactions early on and soon began to scribble them down because in each, there seemed to me a lesson of the power of one individual to make a difference.

Sporting tortoise eyeglasses, a long-sleeve blouse, layered with a black sleeveless puffer jacket and short salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail, Jacqui is, unsurprisingly, always surrounded by the kids and their families.

If she’s tired, she never shows it.

A sense of community and camaraderie has bound the families in the school-based shelter pilot program. As one mother mentioned: everyone is a neighbor, everyone is family, everyone is a friend — and no one is a stranger to Jacqui.

It’s no small wonder why.

Shyly hiding behind her grandmother, a 7-year-old girl, wearing a pink and white long-sleeve shirt that reads “girls can do anything,” begins to whimper.

Jacqui crouches down to her eye level.

“Qué pasó?” she asks. “Do we need to talk?”

Adjacent to the school’s gym, the space where the families sleep at night, they move to a dimly lit room for privacy.

The walls are painted in a canary yellow and cluttered with handmade signs, posters and toys. Jacqui sits down and cradles the girl in her arms, while her grandmother sits across a wooden table, quietly observing and allowing Jacqui to work her magic.

Again, she gently asks, “Qué pasó?”

The girl murmurs something incomprehensible, but Jacqui understands.

“We have to turn off the lights at 10 p.m. every night,” she responds in Spanish. “There are some families who can’t sleep with the lights on.”

The girl nods tearfully and hides her face in the crook of Jacqui’s arm. “No me gusta,” she says. (“I don’t like it.”)

“What could we do?” wonders Jacqui. “Do you think I could give you a small light, so that you can hold it in your hands? You could put it under your mattress.”

Seemingly satisfied with the suggestion, the girl moves on to another question.

“Comó es aquí?” the girl faintly asks. (“What is it like here?”)

Overwhelmed and anxious, it’s suddenly clear that the first grader is about to spend her first night at the emergency shelter.

Ever since the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously voted to expand the shelter to families throughout San Francisco Unified School District in March, after far fewer Buena Vista Horace Mann families utilized the shelter portion of the program than anticipated, the young girl is now among several students representing schools across the city.

At San Francisco Unified School District, approximately 1,852 students (of 52,592) identified as homeless in the 2017-2018 school year.

“Have you seen the space? Would you like to see it? Te lo voy a enseñar,” says Jacqui. “Ven. Come with me.”

As they walk through the spacious middle aisle of the gym, hand in hand, they pass by some of the makeshift beds and cots, separated by black dividers for privacy.

It’s still early enough in the evening, around 6 p.m., that most families have yet to arrive at the shelter, but there are a few children and parents relaxing in their spaces. (On this particular day, the reservation system revealed 52 people were to spend the night at the shelter. As of July 26, 56 people spent the night. The maximum capacity is 60.)

Jacqui introduces her to the other kids close in age and grade levels.

The little girl’s grandmother stays back and continues to observe her granddaughter taking in her new surroundings.

“[Jacqui] really likes children, doesn’t she?” she comments in Spanish.

It’s apparent that Jacqui’s willingness to listen to the little girl helped her regain confidence — slowly, but steadily.

Reflecting on that moment hours later on her drive home that night, she noted how important it is to speak and listen to kids at their level.

“I am trying to really improve the quality [of the shelter] for the families,” she modestly explains. “If they come to you for help, you have to act and do something.”

After the tour and brief introductions with the other kids, she skips in her grandmother’s direction — no longer whimpering. “Más tranquila?” her grandmother asks. (“Feeling calmer?”)

To show the little girl where she would be sleeping, Jacqui and the grandmother attempt to assemble a cot, but struggle during the process. Jacqui calls over a young boy who’s in the space next door for assistance. Once assembled, the little girl splays on the cot with a silly smile on her face.

In just a few weeks time, the young girl confidently calls out Jacqui’s name as she enters the shelter, with a small rolling suitcase in hand, for a hug.

The Stay Over Program is more than just a safety net that shelters families through the nights. While the shelter attracted the headlines and attention, a second component of the program involves collaborative case management, an asset that has staved off imminent homelessness through referrals to Access Points, designed to match families to other housing opportunities or other services in the city.

Earlier that day, Jacqui met two mothers at the Catholic Charities Mission Access Point on 18th Street. They were about to be interviewed by staff to assess their situation for potential alternatives while they stay at the shelter.

One by one, they were called into separate and private rooms until Jacqui was left waiting by herself.

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Jacqui is not immune to using her iPhone to pass the time. Sometimes, she said, she needs to play games on her phone to take a break from her consciousness.

As she swipes through her camera roll, there were some common themes to her photography: vibrant flowers, her two daughters, scenic landscape views, friends and colleagues from her weekend catering job — all punctuated by various images of elementary school-aged kids, showcasing 18 years of dutifully serving students and families, as well as screenshots of motivational quotes or sayings from Instagram and Facebook.

Educated in El Salvador, she immigrated to the United States with experience in nursing, a bachelor’s degree in computer systems and a master’s degree in business and marketing.

“That’s it,” she says. “When you come into the country, it’s nothing.”

She found her path in 2001, when she began working for a nonprofit that served the local community. Since then, she’s dedicated her professional life to supporting families across the Bay Area with the challenges they face.

“The vicarious trauma is tremendous,” she says.

What keeps her going is the strong relationships she has with her daughters, who spoil her as soon as she gets home.

“It’s also, I think, my relationship with God,” she explains. “It’s key for me. I can’t do this job without him.”

Back at Buena Vista Horace Mann, Jacqui asks a high school freshman to follow her to the school’s main office to help her with an errand.

The office is dark with only natural light from a single window, but Jacqui’s iPhone illuminates her hand. She reveals a text message: it’s from Claudia Delarios Morán, the school’s principal. A staff member from the office donated a bag of clothes for the high school freshman, who is from Honduras, and it has been placed carefully for him on one of the office chairs.

“Mira, que linda la señora fue para usted,” she says. (“Look at how kind the woman was for you.”)

With Jacqui’s help, they sort the clothes in piles and the boy’s preferences are revealed: no white (because he’ll get dirty them too quickly), collared or sleeveless shirts.

“Jacqui, ya creo que es todo,” he says. “(Jacqui, I think that’s everything.”)

Except, it’s not. The fifteen-year-old has barely looked through all of the donations and Jacqui encourages him to continue looking and to choose at least three to five shirts.

“Y esta?” she suggests. (“And this one?”)

“So-so,” he giggles.

She holds up another shirt. “No, it’s lycra, Jacqui,” he explains in Spanish. “My stomach will show.”

“Sí tienes pancita,” she jokes, as he joins in with laughter. (“You do have a tummy.”)

The interaction reveals that she has developed into a mother-like figure. In fact, she admits, in the past, kids have called her Mama Jacqui.

After selecting a few shirts, she insists that he write a thank you note. Jacqui quickly procures a sheet of paper from the copy machine and three markers — red, blue and green — from a teacher who was still in the building.

“What do I write?” he asks her in Spanish.

Leaning against a desk, he diligently follows her every word as they carefully craft a message of gratitude.

After the families showered and ate dinner, Jacqui transfers bags full of donated clothes from the canary yellow room to a space adjacent to the gym — a former locker room that houses 826 Valencia’s writer’s room for the school.

Here, the families and children congregate for meals, games and conversation. A string of fairy lights sets a cozy mood in the room designed like an eclectic merchant marine vessel. There’s as much anticipation and excitement for the adults and children as opening a present.

Jacqui tells them not to touch the clothes just yet, so that everyone gets a fair shot at the same time to discover something new.

When she gives the okay, the once-shy little girl proudly shows off a new shirt with a unicorn. Another girl jokingly tries on a heeled boot that is a few sizes too big for her before she passes it onto her older sister. With a huge grin on his face, a father holds up a new jacket. A young boy finds a fun pirate shirt. A woman spots a pair of pants that would be perfect for a taller mother, who has already settled in for bed.

And Jacqui? She’s proudly beaming as she’s standing in the back of the room, ever the photographer, proudly taking a quick snapshot on her iPhone of the families looking out for each other.

“You can see that they are like family,” Jacqui said later that night. “I really love that.”

As they continue to sort through the clothing, a one-year-old playfully runs to Jacqui and hugs her feet. An older girl — the one who had tried on the heeled boots — mimics the toddler.

“Someone like Jacqui is so committed to the work. She has such strong relationships with the families,” said Laura Valdéz, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services. “We would need at least five more Jacqui’s to meet everyone’s needs.”

It’s nearly half an hour until lights are out at the shelter. Two kids are shooting stuffed animals, a teddy bear and Goofy, into the gym’s basketball hoops. They spy Jacqui saying goodbye to the families and wishing the other children a good night.

As she continues to check up on the families in the gym, the two young girls gleefully run after her.

This time, Jacqui’s arms are outstretched.

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