The mission of The Leaven, a faith-based non-profit group with branches in Solano and throughout California, is to revitalize communities through early education intervention. The Leaven learning centers are situated in the apartment complexes where its students and their families live.
The Leaven works in partnership with community organizations and provides after-school mentoring, tutoring and activities for children in the areas they serve. Those areas are generally very low income, where school dropout rates are high and street gangs are often present.
The organization has helped eliminate crime in neighborhoods by providing a safe place where parents know their children are protected and well cared for. The philosophy is that when children are successful in school and have a positive adult influence in their lives, they are significantly less likely to drop out, commit a crime, or join a gang.
The Leaven has sites in both Northern and Southern California, including Vacaville, Fairfield, Suisun City, Benicia and Vallejo.
Natalie Rios is the regional director for the Leaven in Vacaville. She began as a site director in 2016 when The Leaven opened its first Vacaville site at Alamo Garden Apartments. She developed that program and assisted in opening up the second Vacaville site in the Mariposa neighborhood. After four years, she became the regional director and helped establish two other Vacaville sites at East Monte Vista and Camden Parc.
Deede Cain, the site director at Alamo Gardens, commented, “I like to say I can’t change the world, but I can change one life at a time. I have been told that after our first year of being here, the 911 calls dropped 50 percent. We’re only here two hours a day during the school week. So I had my doubts when I heard those statistics. After being here I understand how it works.
“I go out and do a barbecue and get these kids in here. Now all these kids get to know each other, they start walking home from school together, they play with each other at school and so they want to play at each other’s houses. The parents start to get to know each other. So now they are all looking out for each other, kind of like a neighborhood watch, so basically building a community.”
Cain and Kayla Cordell, the site director at East Monte Vista, both attend Valley Church in Vacaville and heard about The Leaven when Rios spoke there about the organization.
“At that point in my life I was working for the Travis School District as an intervention teacher,” said Cain, who has served as site director since June 2019, “and my husband and I decided that it wasn’t the right time because we still had kids in school. So we postponed it. I did start volunteering three years ago and I really liked it and the site had a need for a director and she (Rios) spoke to me about it and I’m like, ‘Hey, it might actually work for me now because my youngest is in college.’ So I resigned my position and took my position here.”
Cain said that The Leaven targeted Alamo Gardens because it was a low-income apartment with a high crime rate and lots of 911 calls. There was a burned-out unit in the apartment complex which The Leaven negotiated with the apartment manager to fix up. The Valley Church came in and redid the apartment at its own expense. It is now an open, ADA-compliant space with remodeled bathrooms and kitchen.
Cain can comfortably accommodate 20 children, but she has had as many as 30 at one time. During the pandemic she could only have one child per table, so she and her volunteers split their 24 children into two groups of 12 and worked with the groups at different times.
The Leaven and its partners went above and beyond during COVID.
“Things are out at stores, so if you don’t have a car and you walk to your store and they don’t have what you need, it’s not like you can run around and look for it,” said Cain. “So we tried to meet those needs because a lot of our parents don’t have cars. I would just put out the word among the people I knew and at church. So we put the word out and helped some of them pay the rent to keep their apartment or we would bring over food.”
The Leaven’s partners include Kaiser Permanente and Genentech, who have helped provide for the families as well.
“People are generous,” said Cain. “I have always had people who come to me and ask, what do they need, because they know I am working with the parents, I know the families so they know it is not a scam. They are not just saying it. They need it. It is legitimate.”
Cordell also heard about The Leaven when Rios spoke at Valley Church. She has worked with the organization for three years, beginning in Fairfield and transferring to the new site at East Monte Vista last September.
The Leaven’s free after-school and summer programs are for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Cordell and her volunteers meet with them for two hours Monday through Thursday.
“They bring their homework and I give them a healthy snack,” said Cordell. “I help them with their homework and then if they’re done with their homework, we help fill in the gaps of their learning and help them get caught up to their grade level. Some kids don’t have a lot of social interaction so we try to get them to get along and we give them physical activities. We play games and we also talk about God because we are a faith-based organization. My favorite part of the day is when kids ask me questions about God.”
The Leaven tries to coordinate its work with the schools.
“I will reach out to the schools and we will try to connect with each student’s teacher,” said Cordell. “Every school year quarterly I will contact the teacher. In Fairfield I was able to go to my students’ classes and surprise them for Halloween. So that was really fun. I try to advocate for the kids and get on the same page with their teacher.”
In the summertime, when the children don’t have homework, The Leaven sites have six weeks of programming, each with a theme.
“We kicked off with money, teaching them the different coins, how to save money, the difference between need and want,” said Cordell. “Each week will be a different theme and we do activities based off of that theme.”
Students from Vacaville High School and Vacaville Christian High are helping as volunteers at some of The Leaven sites this summer.
Cordell’s site is unique in that it is in a standalone building, not part of the apartment complex. It is located near Prime Time Nutrition, a store that is part of WIC, the government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. One of the store’s employees enrolled her daughter and her daughter’s cousin in Cordell’s program, and other children have come to her through her connection with the store. She has also emailed the schools about her program and the schools have publicized it in their newsletters, which has led to many new children enrolling in The Leaven’s program.
Cain says that she has had no problems running the program at Alamo Gardens, even though it is in a high-crime area.
“People know you’re there to help the kids, nobody is going to bother you,” she said. “They are glad that you are there.”
She is happy that she has taken on this new challenge in her life.
“It has been super rewarding,” she said. “I had one dad come to me and say that he really needed me to make sure that the kids’ homework was done before they left. And I said, ‘I’ll stay late if it’s not done.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t learn to read until I was in prison, and so I’m not good at reading and math at all and they tell me that it’s done and they are just writing down stuff. They need to get that education and can I rely on you to help me out?’ and I’m like, ‘Sure.’”
To learn more about The Leaven or to support the organization or volunteer, visit www.myleaven.com.