Walk through the palms and into the yellow building on the edge of Dolores and 16th streets and you’ll see children from every corner of the city running circles around each other on the playground. Laughter rings through the space. They interact the free-flowing way kids do, learning from each other as they go along. It’s the weightless, easy life of early childhood.
These kids have no sense of what their differences might be, and that’s for one very important reason: It just doesn’t matter here. Welcome to Holy Family Day Home, at 118 years of age, the oldest early child-hood education center of its kind in San Francisco.
Here, kids from all walks of life soak up the benefits of a private education with the social experience of attending public school, in a stimulating environment for San Francisco children who otherwise might not have access to one or the other. Their holistic, whole-family approach doesn’t go unnoticed — they have a 400-person waiting list to prove it.
Heather Morado, Holy Family’s executive director, commutes to the city daily from her home in San Jose. She came to Holy Family more than three years ago, after a long career in the nonprofit world, with a singular goal in mind: Leveling the playing field. “We believe that children from all back-grounds should have the same opportunities,” she says. “Affluent families shouldn’t be the only ones to get the best — this is about shared humanity and giving everyone a chance.”
Holy Family does its best to level the playing field by admitting children from a pantheon of backgrounds, where the son of a high-profile public official might be best friends with a child from Hunters Point, and they both get the exact same education. The majority of the program’s students come from low-income back-grounds — some of them are even homeless — while hundreds of other families on the waiting list have the means to pay full tuition. Morado says that dynamic alone provides one of the program’s most valuable lessons: All of us, regardless of our backgrounds, are a lot more alike than we could ever imagine.
When Steve Dells was a neighbor to Holy Family’s building many years ago, he remembers hearing the playful sounds of childhood coming from the school yard each morning. After recognizing then-executive director Donna Cahill, he toured the grounds. There was no going back; he has served on the board of directors for more than 20 years now.
“We need dozens of Holy Family Day Homes in San Francisco,” he says. “It’s a model that should be used nationally. However, here, the challenge is the cost of living and the amount of poverty experienced by so many families. [The day home] is a daily, weekly [and] yearly experience that provides an oasis of grace and humanity that the majority of our children don’t have when they aren’t there.”
The curriculum is rooted in a multi-ethnic, inclusive and environmentally-friendly philosophy, which focuses on multi-faceted childhood development — physical, cognitive, social, emotional and creative. Staff members work relentlessly to build students’ confidence, individual pride and capacities for patience, problem-solving and collaboration.
Tom Oertli has seen this firsthand at Holy Family. Over nearly two decades, he has served on the board as president, vice president and is currently an emeritus board member and part of the program and planning committee. “In the classroom I saw ‘the solution kit.’ And I thought, ‘If only adults had this,’” he says. “It’s when two children have a disagreement, maybe arguing over the same toy, they can open the solution kit which has cards with different solution options such as: Play together, take turns, [or] find another toy. It helps them learn to communicate and resolve problems peacefully.”
Also on the menu: Supporting the students’ entire family through parenting classes, mental health support services and access to fresh produce at their free weekly farmers market. Parents have access to a space where they can check their emails, make calls, serve themselves a cup of coffee, have a meal if they’re hungry and arrange for other types of support for them and their kids if necessary. This whole-family model is working. When parents feel supported, children benefit. It may seem simple, but for many parents, it’s everything.
“Back when my daughter went to Holy Family, I would drop her off and immediately have an anxiety attack because I was going through a lot at the time,” says Judy Espino, whose two children attended Holy Family. “One day, a member of the administrative staff pulled me aside and referred me to the counselor. I started going to the school psychologist on a weekly basis and have continued going. That was four years ago. It has completely changed my life.”
Having raised five kids with his wife, board member Joseph Toboni was no stranger to child interaction when he volunteered at the home eight years ago. But when he wandered to the edge of the school yard to observe Holy Family’s kids, he saw something remarkable. “All I saw from these preschool children was love and cooperation,” he says. “I was taken aback because many of their home lives are just not socially mainstream.” The children’s energy drew Toboni in. He has served on the board for more than five years now. Some of his fellow board members are graduates of the program.
Samuel Wan, a psychologist for the San Francisco VA Medical Center, and Michael Carroll, a retired partner from Erskine and Tulley, are both Holy Family success stories. And there are many more — one of their students was offered a nine year scholarship to The Hamlin School in San Francisco after going through the program. Oertli expects the experience to be truly transformative for her.
But the work isn’t finished yet. Morado is working constantly to keep this the norm at Holy Family, while implementing new programs that will improve the experience further, like the family support center and, in the near future, an improved outdoor space. “We are having a gala on Oct. 18 and we’re hoping to raise enough to redesign this space to even better meet the developmental needs of the kids,” she says.
On a foggy day in August, she walks through the outdoor play yard with children zooming around her on their way to the monkey bars. She points out the vegetable garden, explaining that they like to use fresh spices and vegetables in their food, and what will soon be the chicken coop (chickens should be arriving in the next few weeks). Looking around that summer morning, Morado has a grin on her face — she’s proud of the future she’s helping build.