School on Wheels continues

Malibu resident Herb Alpert, a Grammy Award-winning musician, unveiled "Totems," his work incorporating cast bronze sculptures at New York City's Bryant Park last week.

to help homeless children

School on Wheels is recruiting volunteers so it can keep up with the demand of the growing program that helps homeless children receive an education.

By Vive DeCou / Special to The Malibu Times

School on Wheels, a Malibu-based charity organization that helps homeless kids in grades K-12 receive the best education possible, is still going strong after 12 years and is changing to meet increasing demand for its services. The organization’s founder, Malibu resident Agnes Stevens, said she hopes this year to double the number of volunteer tutors that are so vital to SOW and hire two more regional coordinators to help oversee projects in Los Angeles County.

Last year more than 300 volunteers gave about 30,000 hours of their time tutoring thousands of kids in Los Angeles County as part of the School on Wheels program. Stevens said she hopes to recruit many more this year. Volunteers are over the age of 18 and spend one hour a week tutoring homeless children in shelters, hotels, libraries and special Learning Rooms developed by SOW with all the amenities of a classroom. Underage people are also able to volunteer by teaming up with a parent to form what Stevens called a family package. She said that there are a few family packages with SOW and it is a great bonding experience for parent and child.

The organization has a monthly newsletter called School on Wheels News that provides a forum for tutors and staff to share their stories. Eileen McAndrews, a tutor and coordinator working in the Ford Hotel on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, shared her experiences in September’s issue.

“Even though these children grow up in such a horrible environment, they are basically like all other children,” McAndrews wrote. “They hunger for attention and love, and, in fact, do respect a disciplinarian, because in many cases they do not get any from their parents. I have seen so many of the children just stop going to school and no one bothers to follow up.”

Stevens stressed the great impact a volunteer tutor can have on kids whose lives are such a struggle.

“Many will feel hurt or angry inside,” she said. “Once they see that you are there for them —just the fact that a volunteer is there-it helps them to do their best and not feel so alone.”

Stevens said there are countless stories of children who have been helped by the SOW volunteers and shared one that happened recently. A 13-year-old girl was living at a shelter on Skid Row in Los Angeles. She received tutoring from people who came to the shelter once a week.

This particular student was challenged by pre-algebra. With a desire to learn, she worked with her tutor every week. One week SOW was having a cake and ice cream party. But this girl was more interested in completing her work and wanted to miss the party until she mastered her homework.

“Now that seems like a little thing but in the life of a homeless teen, it is a huge thing,” Stevens said. “It is a moment like this where they gain self-esteem and confidence as a student; when they themselves stick with something and finally catch on. She was more happy with that than cake and ice cream.”

In addition to increasing the number of volunteers, Stevens said SOW is also hiring new regional coordinators. She said until recently all of Los Angeles County was under the jurisdiction of just one coordinator. They have since split up the county and given their new regional coordinators the tasks of recruiting, screening and training volunteers, as well as becoming familiar with local shelters.

SOW also provides school supplies including backpacks, an endeavor that Stevens said helps the organization reach as many students as possible.

“We try to make sure that every child in every shelter will get their supplies,” Stevens said.

Another service that SOW provides is help for homeless children with enrollment in public schools. Stevens said last year SOW enrolled more than 200 children in school and it can be quite difficult because they move around so much and paperwork can get lost. There are no shelters in Malibu but the community is a great support to SOW, providing tutors and financial and material support. Pepperdine students also help and tutor children in Downtown Los Angeles. Stevens said she is very appreciative for the help and support that SOW gets from her hometown and remains focused on helping the children against all odds.

“We are their support,” Stevens said. “We are a thread that keeps them in school, so during their time of homelessness they don’t lose all that time.”

In a time when there is concern about people in crisis in other parts of the nation and the world, Stevens said it is important for people to remember those locally who are in need.

“Our hearts go out to the families and victims of Katrina and the families in Pakistan,” Stevens said. “At the same time we have these children in our own neighborhoods whose lives also have been disrupted and are very courageous.”

Over the years Stevens and SOW have received awards and recognition for the work they do. Last year Stevens received a Gleitsman Foundation Citizen Activist Award. SOW was also honored last year by Oprah’s Angel Network.