Written by Donald A. Promnitz
Sandra Kaye began her journey to help others ten years ago after suffering severe setbacks during the Great Recession.
“Actually, I had lost everything I had and I was kind of feeling sorry for myself, sitting at home in a beautiful home with a fireplace burning,” Kaye said. “And I saw people freezing to death on the streets on the television set – and the only thing keeping them warm was their dogs.”
This prompted her to Google search “dogs helping homeless,” for which the only thing to come up was a shelter in Lawrence, Kansas that was making all-natural dog treats as a work skill. Soon after, Kaye flew out to learn the trade and from there, the St. Francis Homeless Project began. In 2010, they gained nonprofit status, with funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. A decade later, the organization is growing and working to accommodate their expansion.
Every Friday, the women of St. Francis make upwards of 5,000 to 6,000 “Dogs Dig ‘Em” treats at their Institute of Technology campus in Clovis. And along with the reputation of their mission, the project’s been gained attention for its product, which is now being sold in 121 retail locations.
This growth has prompted Kaye to open a second and third kitchen. This will add two more 15-woman cohorts to their operation, which has just signed a contract with Spirit of Women residential substance abuse treatment program in Fresno to recommend people to St. Francis.
St. Francis Homeless Project, Inc. has set its sights predominantly on women with backgrounds of addiction. For many of them, their experience baking dog treats is the first step in rejoining society. Of the women that graduate the program, most are remaining drug-free while learning new skills, getting jobs and finishing their GEDs. Meanwhile others have gotten married and have been reunited with their families.
Among those to have seen their lives changed was Ashlie Platt. Born into an environment of substance abuse, Platt said she started using drugs at age 14. After being involved in strong-arm robbery, she was sentenced to five years in prison, being released in May.
After being released, Platt found her way to Kaye and in the five months that have passed, she has taken on a full-time job outside of St. Francis and is saving money for a new home.
“But I still make time to come here because… Sandra gave me the first opportunity when I got out of prison,” Platt said. “She was the very first person that was willing to help me.”
According to Kaye, the positive results for the homeless women in the program are due largely to the support network created by the enrollees themselves. Through working together and shared experiences, the women have cultivated what she referred to as a “town of recovery” within St. Francis.
“What’s now occurred is that out there in the world of our graduates – we’ve got 49 of them now – they all take care of each other,” Kaye said. “So if one of them falls off and they can’t find her for three or four days, they’re calling her. It’s like a whole St. Francis community.”
“We’ve all been in the same position, we’re all in the same situation, we’re all just trying to make a better life for ourselves,” Platt said. “And so it’s just like we feel at home here.”
Kaye stated that she expects the second kitchen to open next week, while the third will be open before Christmas.