BYRON -- Already raising five children on a shoestring budget, Alma Becerra didn't know where to turn when her husband was deported last year.
In another town, she might have sought help at a local nonprofit or a social services center. But in Byron -- a farming town of 1,000 with no elected government and little public transportation -- it was the school district that came to her aid.
Under the banner of the newly created Bridge program, administrators gave the family clothes and a holiday turkey, and found a private speech therapist for Becerra's 4-year-old, who hadn't yet begun talking.
The Byron Union School District serves 1,650 students in Byron and Discovery Bay, two unincorporated towns on the outskirts of East Contra Costa County with little infrastructure and few social resources. And while other districts are cutting back on services in response to budget cuts, administrators here have started an initiative to help meet the needs of struggling families.
"The Bridge program is a kind of social service program because those services aren't out here in far East County," school board member Jill Sprenkel said. "We're a small town, and we need to circle the wagons."
Students in the district's one middle school and two elementary schools have been especially hard hit by the housing and economic crises, school officials say. Swept up in the East County housing bubble, the school district has the second-highest vacancy rate in the East Bay, according to the 2010 census.
Byron has long been a poor community, and parent Wendy Fisher, whose daughter received free math and science tutoring through Excelsior Middle School last year, said that the downturn has hurt Discovery Bay as well.
"There's a lot of families here where both mom and dad used to work and now none work," she said.
But the state budget crisis also means the tiny school district, which does not benefit from any special taxes, has no money to waste. The district has already slashed music and counseling programs, and layoffs have reduced the teaching staff to 60 instructors. With Bridge, officials are attempting to turn what resources the district has into what the students need.
Among other things, school staff members have taken students grocery shopping, connected families with affordable dental care, and walked parents through the process of applying for food stamps for the first time, all under the banner of Bridge.
The program runs on donations, earmarked grants and with the help of teacher and parent volunteers. Occasionally, the district is able to squeeze funding out of the regular budget to do things such as raise the income ceiling for the free lunch program.
Without a program like Bridge, families would have to rely on resources several towns over.
"We have a lot of things we can recommend in Walnut Creek or Concord," program coordinator Danielle Storey said, "but there's very little out here."
Standards set by No Child Left Behind make schools responsible for both educating students and ensuring their social and emotional health. In recent years, the district has given precedence to the latter responsibility, according to intervention specialist Dorinda Mas.
It's done so on the theory that students cannot learn if they are overwhelmed with anxiety about their home lives.
"When things come up, we just take care of it," Mas said.
Curriculum coordinator Allan Petersdorf recalled the case of a father he spotted using a broken stroller to wheel his children the four miles to Discovery Bay Elementary. Petersdorf secured a new stroller through a few calls to well-off parents, cut the tags and rubbed some dirt on the wheels, and then called the father to offer him a stroller the district had "just lying around."
Officials admit that parents don't always ask for help.
Alma Becerra didn't tell anyone at the school that her husband had been deported over the summer. It was her 12-year-old son who confided in a teacher.
But she was overjoyed when the school surprised the family with Christmas presents and a holiday dinner.
"It made me so happy," she said, "and it made me want to cry."
Becerra says English learner coordinator Maddie Lopez has helped her come to terms with the stigma she feels as a de-facto single mother.
"It's hard to be a woman without a husband," Becerra said. "But like Ms. Lopez says, it's not my fault."
On a recent Wednesday, Lopez and more than a dozen other teachers and administrators crowded around a small conference table for their monthly Bridge meeting.
They passed handouts with catchphrases such as "wraparound families" and "culture of care" over an impressive collection of coffee cups and energy drinks.
A few months ago, the principal of Timber Point Elementary presented this room with a pressing problem. A family was scrambling to leave their house, which had been foreclosed. The Bridge team was able to find trucks and bring out a crew of teachers to help the family move to a relative's home in Antioch.
The Bridge team is growing all the time, officials say. The most recent addition is an outreach coordinator from John Muir Medical Center.
Parents are getting involved as well. A man who leaned on the school district last year will teach a "grandfather-as-father" class at an all-day parenting conference Bridge is holding this month.
Other East County districts may be taking notice of this program's success. The nearby Oakley elementary school district, for example, recently held a "parent university" conference that echoes Byron's.
For school board member Sprenkel, the idea of teachers doing what needs to be done is nothing new; it's just that the need has become more pronounced in recent years.
"For me, the school has always been the heart of the community," she said, "especially in a small town."
Contact Hannah Dreier at 925-779-7174. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier.