Sunday Friends empowers families to break the generational cycle of poverty by fostering positive development in children while educating and guiding parents to support their children's life success.
Children and parents work together to learn, earn and serve the community.
"The most important thing I've learned at Sunday Friends is to share with the people, be of help, and to keep the community united. Together we work as one family."
Sunday Friends was founded by Janis Baron, a mother of three and Silicon Valley engineer, in January of 1997. Concerned about the lack of awareness among high school students of different cultures, races and lifestyles, including her own young teens, Janis decided one Sunday to take her children to a family shelter. Despite twenty years of community volunteering, Janis was uncertain about how to help, so she began by having her children interact with the children in the shelter: playing games, drawing and reading. The children in the shelter were reluctant at first to participate, but Janis and her children continued to return each Sunday, slowly building relationships and trust.
"In Sunday Friends, I learn that not everything in this world is work and to be sad. There are better things to do like to be here."
- Sunday Friends Mom
One Sunday, Janis noticed that the grounds of the shelter were riddled with trash and asked one of the children to help her pick up the trash in exchange for some art project stickers. Almost immediately, other children came running and wanted to know how many pieces of trash they would have to pick up for a whole page of stickers.
Janis had discovered what was to become the underlying principle of the unique Sunday Friends model: self-respect and pride in one's accomplishments are earned through work and helping others ---- not by accepting handouts.
Trash collecting expanded into cleaning projects around the shelter. Soon stickers were replaced with "tickets" produced on the Baron home computer--a concept which caught on like wildfire. Janis made weekly trips to a dollar store for crayons, jump ropes and various toys for the children to earn. The children asked for more tasks to earn more tickets, redeemable for toys.
And it was not long before parents were asking if they could participate to earn tickets for diapers, a desperately needed item. The inclusion of the parents in the ticket program led to an expansion of the work activities and the number of volunteers needed to organize them. In time, the shelter provided a big closet to house the first Treasure Chest, a "store" which was stocked with a variety of goods, purchased and donated by Sunday Friends' first donors.
With so many tickets now in circulation, it became imperative that a method be found to keep track of who was earning tickets and how many, particularly for the children, who had a lot of trouble keeping track of their tickets from week to week. The solution was the creation of the Sunday Friends banking system. Not long after the bank was put in place, it became apparent that, for many adults, the Sunday Friends ticket bank was as close as they had ever come to experiencing depositing, saving and withdrawing money. Although the ticket tracking is now computerized and the bank pays interest on all accounts, the Sunday Friends Bank continues to provide program participants the opportunity to learn about money management and how it can be practiced in the real world.
"You guys do great work - we're happy to be associated with you, and happy to help!"
- Sunday Friends Corporate Supporter
One of the earliest activities Janis introduced was to have the children write thank you letters to donors. Initially there was great reluctance and resistance on the part of the children to participate in letter writing. Then the parents stepped in.
Parents living in shelters are so consumed and stressed with trying to find a way to make their lives work that they long for and welcome the opportunity to spend a few hours a week engaging in meaningful, shared activities with their children. They saw the letter writing activity as a way to spend time with their children and practice skills useful for the whole family. Once the parents started working with their children, letter writing became one of the most popular of the activities and remains so to this day.
The letters served another purpose. They create a bond between the donors and the families who benefit from their gifts, linking real people to one another. Donors report that they often save these letters for years because, for many of them, it is the only time they feel a personal connection with people for whom they provide support. And for the families, it is a way to meaningfully contribute to the organization and give back to the people who are helping them.
Healthy snacks to provide an alternative to candy were also introduced very early in the program. Initially, fresh fruit smoothies were made by the children and served to everyone in the shelter.
This modest beginning has grown and evolved into a large, multi-purposed nutrition program that not only provides wholesome, sugar-free meals, but also nutrition education and the opportunities for families to earn by practicing healthy food habits during the programs as well as in their homes.
"Sunday Friends really reinforced my view that we don't change people directly, but instead alter the conditions surrounding everybody so that people may more easily lift themselves up."
- San Jose State Student
Sunday Friends believes that the values and attitudes that families practice must be sustained over extended periods of time to truly assist them in breaking the generational cycle of poverty. The average stay in a shelter for a family is three months. This short time period led to a sense of frustration for both Sunday Friends and the families that had to leave the Sunday Friends program before they were ready.
So, after six years within homeless shelters, Sunday Friends sought out a location that would be available to all families in need and for as long as they chose to attend. The San Jose Unified School District offered Sunday Friends the use of the Lowell Elementary School cafeteria and an unused building on its campus to house the Treasure Chest, all rent-free. Thus began a collaboration that would grow to fulfill the long-range needs of the community.
At the same time, Sunday Friends' volunteer base was growing. Janis encouraged community members to lead activities and bring in new ideas. Sunday Friends became a place for volunteers to realize their own strengths and build on these skills while gaining a sense of awareness of the diversity in their community. By drawing on the amazing resources of the community, Sunday Friends evolved and further expanded its program offerings.
"I think (Sunday Friends) not only brings the families together, but it also brings the whole community together."
The move from the shelter to an open community setting was a crucial transition in the evolution of Sunday Friends. Because they had to make special efforts to participate, families were now demonstrating their willingness to take responsibility for improving their own lives. In the new setting, the families who attended were the ones most likely to benefit from what was being offered. The move also allowed parents to be more involved with their children in activities so that the values and attitudes they learned could be practiced throughout the week in their own homes. In response to the growing number of immigrant families participating, Sunday Friends added English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with dedicated, bilingual teachers from the community.
"It is one of the best organizations we know that allows recipients to be donors, thereby gaining a sense of empowerment and reinforcing their self-dignity"
- Ziv Tzedakah Foundation
Throughout the years of programming at Lowell, Sunday Friends' program grew richer with new opportunities and education. Many of the initial activities started by Sunday Friends still remain in the program. The healthy cooking projects have expanded significantly over the years, offering families everything from simple snacks like apples and peanut butter to salads, ethnic foods and high protein dishes. Thank You Letter writing has expanded to include writing by families at home. A variety of giving activities, such as creating gifts for children in hospitals and residents of nursing homes, have become staples of the program. Families are now able to learn important life skills, including English-As-A-Second-Language, to deal with day-to-day challenges. Our programs also offer creative and fun education in nutrition, health, financial literacy, science, piano, dance, math, reading, school readiness for preschoolers, parenting effectiveness, job skills and multiculturalism.
Since 2003, Sunday Friends has collaborated with faculty from San Jose State and Santa Clara Universities to conduct professional biennial program evaluations. Each of the six completed evaluations has demonstrated Sunday Friends' success in imparting developmental assets to children, building self-sufficiency in families and fostering volunteerism in the community.
Over the years, thousands of parents and their children in our community have benefited from our programs. We routinely collaborate with other local non-profit groups. Over 1,000 members of the community volunteer each year. In the process, lives change as skills and attitudes of self-reliance and pride are nurtured.
Since the fall of 2012, Sunday Friends has demonstrated that we can operate at multiple program sites. Today, we are running programs at two sites in San Jose: Lowell Elementary in the San Jose Unified School District and Santee Elementary in the Franklin McKinley School District. We are regularly evaluating invitations to bring our program to additional schools while we develop funding for the next expansion.
Many of our long-term participants from the Lowell-based programs have stepped into leadership as we have opened new sites, welcoming in new families, showing them the ropes and effectively role modeling Sunday Friends' values. We have learned that we can successfully replicate the Sunday Friends program.
The expansions led to the establishment of a second Treasure Chest Store, which is open six days a week.
Our programs at both sites are flourishing, with new collaborations, service projects and educational features regularly enhancing the curriculum.