Mustard Seed Street Ministry

2009 Winner: Societal Impact Award

Agency Helps Guests Dare To Dream

We firmly believe there is no better investment than in the people of Alberta,” states Diana Schwenk, director of Development at the Mustard Seed Society. “We also believe people are our greatest resource and the more independent the people are the stronger the community is.”

The not-for-profit organization has been housing, clothing and feeding Calgary’s homeless for 24 years. It shelters about 275 people a night. And for the last six years, Mustard Seed has been breaking down the digital divide that separates the computer-literate from those who have fallen behind the blinding pace of technological change.

The Mustard Seed adopted its technological programs in 2003 when Industry Canada’s Smart Communities project provided the opportunity to build a technical infrastructure within and between the social-services agencies in Calgary. “The technology interweaves through everything we do,” Ms. Schwenk says, referring to the Mustard Seed’s more than 40 programs that help guests find shelter, employment, and to develop skills. The agency now has a computer lab where staff and volunteers teach guests computer skills. It also allows them to track the progress of the guests for statistical purposes, strategic planning and case management, and to issue identification cards to guests to improve safety at the shelter. “We try to work with people to develop themselves,” explains Ms. Schwenk. “We measure the assets they have in their lives, like shelter, income, social supports, and recreational opportunities. We want to ensure the whole person is being fed, so that individual can contribute back to society.” Ms. Schwenk says technology changed the focus of the work Mustard Seed were doing.“We began working to get people off the street,” she says. “Now we have about 30 people a month who move into independent living. That’s incredible.” Computers and technology were instrumental, in part because guests now have the opportunity to write exams and look for work on line, write their resumes, and develop other employment skills.

Ms. Schwenk attributes the Mustard Seed’s technology to the success of a client named Jim who has been staying at the Mustard Seed for a few years, initially to have his basic needs met. Through the help of the agency’s computerized goal-tracking system, his support worker was able to help him set and achieve his goals. First he moved to transitional housing and participated in upgrading his education and seeking work. Then he found work in a Mustard Seed facility and this spring he moved to his own apartment. “He credits his success to the staff and volunteers and the access to technology that allowed him to gain the skills he needed to apply for a job, and manage a budget and his personal life,” says Ms. Schwenk.  “We help people believe in themselves. We let them dare to dream,” she adds. “Each success our guests achieve encourages them to reach higher.”