The nonprofit organization School on Wheels offers help and hope to homeless children by traveling to wherever they may be living to offer tutoring

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Agnes Stevens, founder of School on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that offers tutoring to homeless children.

and other services.

By Carla Fischer / Special to The Malibu Times

While children throughout Southern California have been preparing to return to school in recent weeks, buying backpacks, pencils, paper and other supplies and new school clothes, there are thousands of children without homes and without the resources to fill a new backpack and go to school.

For many, however, there is support in the form of the nonprofit organization, School on Wheels, founded in 1993 by Malibu resident Agnes Stevens. Volunteers with the organization fan out across Southern California to give these children backpacks filled with supplies, and help their families in enrolling children in local schools and offer weekly educational support via tutoring wherever the child might be living at-be it a car, a shelter, or elsewhere.

“The California Department of Education currently estimates there are 200,000 homeless children in California,” said Catherine Meeks, School on Wheel’s Chief Operating Officer. “In L.A. Unified School District there are 14,000 registered homeless kids and those are low numbers, because they don’t self-identify, not including districts that don’t report.”

Volunteer Sinead Chilton, who is originally from England, tutors homeless children in grades kindergarten to 12th grade. “I didn’t know there was a such a thing as homeless children in the best country in the world and they were living on streets. It absolutely floored me!” she said.

Chilton described an hour in the life of a School on Wheels tutor.

All tutors are given a four-hour orientation and a tutor with experience will accompany a new tutor at the beginning, she said.

“Everyone at the shelter loves to see a School On Wheels badge,” Chilton said. “They know who we are.

“Most of the time,” she added laughing, “we have children running up to us saying, ‘I want a tutor, I want a tutor…and a backpack!”

Chilton will take supplies with her in a yellow wheelie backpack filled with flash cards, calculators, and manipulatives like blocks, money, coins, pens, scissors, paper, rulers, glue, or anything a student might need. At the shelter, the tutor and student will find a quiet space in a study room. If they’re living in a motel, car, or other living space, then after getting a “trip slip” signed by a parent they might find a quiet table at a library, doughnut shop, or park.

Depending on the student’s study needs, perhaps the tutor will begin by helping the student organize materials, prioritize and help with assignments, homework, play learning games, or help with reading and give feedback on a paper or report. The hour is divided into segments, the last a treat like playing a computer game, chess, or other fun, educational activities. Many times, two or three tutors might go to a shelter at the same time and after the session, like a buddy system, they talk about their problems or frustrations.

Chilton said, “Every time they [the children] move, it’s estimated they fall behind between three to six months. The kids seem so confused. School and schoolwork falls off the list of priorities. I think that’s why School on Wheels really works, because it’s so simple. We can’t do anything about them being homeless, but we can give the kids hope and help them to focus on their number one job-learning.”

School on Wheels CEO Meeks, who used to own a consulting business, began tutoring homeless children on Skid Row in 1998. “I felt I could spend at least one hour a week tutoring,” Meeks said. “It wasn’t a whole day, so I knew I could do it.”

“There’s somebody, an adult, who’s here for them and only for them, because it’s one-on-one tutoring, once a week, every week,” Meeks added. “That person shows up consistently just to help them. That is so unusual in their life. Nobody’s there for them.”

Founder Stevens was a teacher for many years. She experienced a profound awareness of the homeless problem in 1985 when she read “Rachel and Her Children: A Study of Homeless Families in America” by Jonathan Kosol.

“I didn’t know there were homeless kids,” she said.

When she left teaching, Stevens volunteered for three years at Coeur d’Alene Elementary School in Venice, greeting children from a nearby shelter. She decided to do something to help them. “They have to discover for themselves that they can do something. Otherwise, unless there’s some kind of intervention it’s a vicious circle. Education can help homeless kids get out from where they’re at: being homeless,” Stevens said.

In the beginning, Stevens started tutoring at a park bench. School on Wheels now has chapters in five major regions in Southern California including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and also in Indiana and Massachusetts. When a child moves, School on Wheels will coordinate to keep the tutoring ongoing for that child.

“We have an internal database that allows our regional shelter coordinators to communicate with each other and let us know when the kids move,” Stevens explained, “because we do want to go with them, be with that kid, kind of stand with them as they move from school to school. If they move to Long Beach, we’ll be able to match them up with another tutor who travels to wherever they are: the shelter, library or a public place.”

Stevens credits Meeks with expanding School on Wheels. Meeks understood about strategic planning and having goals, like the need to recruit more volunteers, she said. “Catherine took SOW from a mom and pop to a solid organization.”

Meeks moved to Ojai and started a chapter in the Ventura region. She handles all day-to-day operating activities of School on Wheels full time, and tutors two eight-year-old children in Oxnard.

“It’s a wonderful experience to help at-risk, highly disadvantaged children, whose lives are totally chaotic,” Meeks said. “I mean totally chaotic. Even to be able to help for a couple of hours a week to lessen that chaos-make them feel better about themselves, that they can indeed become successful individuals, that homelessness doesn’t have to define their life-is one of the best experiences I’ve ever gone through.”

“My goal,” Meeks said, “is for School on Wheels not to be in existence, because there wouldn’t be any homeless children. But I know that’s a dream not likely to happen soon, so my second goal, like Agnes, is to have a tutor for every homeless child. We have close to 400 volunteers now, the heart of our program. Our goal is to double that amount by the end of the year.”

Peoples’ generosity in the form of private and corporate donations, grants, gifts, and the generosity of companies sustains School on Wheels. The Federation of Synagogues and companies like Amgen supply the organization with a backpack and school supplies for every student. Bob Morris, owner of Malibu’s Paradise Cove Beach CafĂ©, holds an annual Christmas party for up to 200 children with the local Fire Department bringing Santa Claus.

More information on how to volunteer or how to make a donation to School On Wheels can be obtained online at www.schoolonwheels.org, or by calling 800.923.1100 or 310.589.2642.