By Dave Schwab
Instructing young children who would otherwise be out on the streets comes naturally for social worker-turned-teacher Ingrid Valentini of San Diego Rescue Mission (SDRM).
“I got my bachelor’s degree in social work but that was not my target job,” said Valentini, who’s been working for three years with homeless children at San Diego Rescue Mission at 120 Elm St. Downtown. “So I went back to school to get a degree in childhood development. Ideally, I wanted a job combining social work and child development.”
Valentini got exactly that at San Diego Rescue Mission, which provides services for children within the community who are homeless or transitioning from unstable housing.
Having taught in private day care, Valentini had no previous hands-on experience with special-needs children.
“There were a lot of real challenges with the trauma they’ve experienced transitioning with their parents into stable housing,” she said of her Rescue Mission students, ages 2 to 5. “We are reaching out to them in the shelter tents, at the Monarch School (for homeless children) and the community.”
There are more than 1.2 million homeless students nationwide, 23,000 alone in San Diego County. Research shows homelessness makes students high risk, contributing to numerous physical and psychological problems including safety fears and academic struggles. An estimated 75 percent of homeless students never obtain a high school diploma.
SDRM recently expanded its preschool program increasing the number of students it serves while providing wraparound services addressing their families’ basic needs.
“We are excited about the role of our preschool and breaking the cycle of homelessness in the lives of children,” said Rescue Mission CEO Donnie Dee. “With the recent expansion, our gifted teachers and dedicated volunteers can reach more kids as we continue to impact San Diego one life at a time.”
The Rescue Mission’s Early Education program allows children to grow physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. The expansion allows the mission to serve up to 21 children in split classrooms by age, also increasing the number of children served in the classroom.
Instability is one of the toughest issues Valentini deals with.
“A lot of the children we serve don’t have stable environments,” she said. “Some are coming from domestically abusive families with mental illness and violence that they witness from one parent — or the other.”
Broken homes translate into broken behavior.
“We get a lot of fighting and destruction of school property, with students displaying uncontrolled crying and screaming and running away from the group or climbing on furniture,” Valentini said, “There’s a reason behind all of this behavior. We do a lot of validating of feelings and emotions.”
Valentini does role modeling teaching troubled children appropriate and inappropriate behavior. “If a child hurts another child, we talk about how they can help that child,” she said.
Children living on the streets tend to have delays in their development, as they suffer from anxiety, emotional distress and toxic stress. The Rescue Mission recognizes early intervention has a positive impact on them.
Teachers at the Rescue Mission are trained in helping children in crisis and with special needs. A low 1-to-6 student-to-teacher ratio further ensures children will receive the attention and care they require in order to develop to their potential.
Rescue Mission classrooms are designed to be comfortable and are equipped with learning centers. Classrooms an accommodate large and small groups, as well as quiet and active play times.
A variety of factors, everything from loss of employment to San Diego’s high housing costs, causes families to end up on the streets.
“It’s the little things we can do to help them get back on their feet, like mentoring their children,” said Valentini. “We can begin to help them heal socially and emotionally, teaching them language and literacy while providing a loving and safe environment for them to thrive.”
Visit San Diego Rescue Mission at sdrescue.org.
—Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.