School on Wheels receives national recognition

Agnes Stevens was awarded a Gleitsman Foundation Citizen Activist Award for her work with Schools on Wheels. The organization also received a $120,000 grant from Oprah's Angel Network. Sara Bakhshian / TMT

The founder is honored with a Gleitsman Award, and Oprah’s Angel Network gives the organization a $120,000 grant.

By Sara Bakhshian/Special to The Malibu Times

After almost 11 years, School on Wheels, a non-profit organization whose goal is to continue education for homeless children in grades K-12, is still growing and receiving national recognition. Founder and Malibu resident Agnes Stevens received a Gleitsman Foundation Citizen Activist Award last week at Harvard University and Oprah’s Angel Network recently awarded School on Wheels with a $120,000 grant.

The Malibu-based organization helps about 3,000 students a year at more than 80 shelters throughout Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Santa Barbara, Pomona and the South Bay. School on Wheels also reaches homeless children in transitional houses, public libraries and hotels.

The Gleitsman Foundation recognizes and encourages leadership in social activism worldwide. Each honoree receives a $100,000 dollar prize along with a commemorative sculpture conceived by Maya Lin, the creator of the Vietnam War Memorial. Past honorees include former Vice President Al Gore and retired pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

The Oprah’s Angel Network Award was started in 1997 by the talk show host to inspire people to help others. School on Wheels is one of 11 award recipients this year.

School on Wheels offers homeless children four main services: one-on-one tutoring, backpacks and grade level appropriate school supplies, assistance with public school enrollment, and a toll-free 800 number to use while in transition from home to home.

School on Wheels has set up a number of learning centers in various shelters, with computers and long tables so children have a quiet workspace.

While School on Wheels is continuing to grow in Southern California, it’s also making strides nationally. A somewhat independent operation exists in Indiana, and although it follows some of the same bylaws of Schools on Wheels here, it operates on its own.

Discussions are in the works for a similar School on Wheels base in Massachusetts.

These strides all come through extensive team work by the recently grown eight-person School on Wheels staff. Stevens said the organization’s advisory board came to a crossroads as to whether to maintain its staff size of four or to grow. They decided the latter.

Carol Lee, 27, and Christine O’Keefe, 27, were hired about four months ago as program manager and volunteer manager respectively. Lee works closely with most of the shelters to initiate and support School on Wheels programs. O’Keefe maintains contact with the volunteers so they don’t feel isolated in their respective regions and shelters. School on Wheels currently has more than 350 active tutors throughout Southern California.

Eddie Crismani, an Australian expatriate and screenwriter, joined recently as material organizer. Stevens calls Crismani the Santa Clause of the organization because he picks up and distributes material donations to tutors and shelters.

Stevens said those material donations make up all the supplies School on Wheels distributes to homeless children. Without these supplies Stevens doesn’t think the organization could reach so many students each year.

Joanie Nelson, Downtown Learning Center manager, has one of the most unique roles in the organization. The former tutor, shelter coordinator and regional coordinator now manages the learning center in Skid Row, a 40-block section in downtown Los Angeles. The center is across from the Union Mission Rescue, the largest privately owned shelter in the nation. While many of the children in other shelters are established in schools, Nelson works actively with the Union children before they are enrolled and after.

“Sometimes the families enter a shelter with only the clothes on their back,” Nelson said.

Administrators will call her if a child is absent, then Nelson contacts the parents and reiterates the importance of perfect attendance. She also helps the children obtain bus tokens if they are eligible and bus passes if they are not.

Literal organization is a major factor in School on Wheels. Frederique Eisenbach, a retired administrative assistant, started as a tutor with the organization in 2001. When a male child she was tutoring left unexpectedly, as many of the children do, she went to Stevens and said she wanted to help with the office. Eisenbach is now the data base manager in charge of every person, place or thing. Karen Shimahara, a retired financial officer and personnel counselor at UCLA, is now the office manager. Shimahara is in the midst of creating procedure and policy manuals for the organization to run smoother. And Sheila Hong, administrative assistant, not only helps Stevens with her executive director duties, but also manages three regions School on Wheels is currently tutoring in.

Communication is key to their organization Stevens said. They all have the same focus. “Our client is the kid,” Stevens said. “It has everything to do with education, we’re not social workers.”

“We try to narrow our focus that’s where we are most effective,” Lee said.

School on Wheels does not want to get involved in politics, Stevens said. The organization does not receive local, state or federal funding and any future chapters who may run independently have to adopt this practice she said. The organization receives its funding from foundations, consistent financial donors and material donors.

While there are not any shelters in Malibu, the community supports Stevens and School on Wheels. Eisenbach found 442 Malibu residents in the database that are tutors, financial donors or material donors.

Stevens particularly appreciates her fellow Paradise Cove residents, Steve Dahlberg and Bob Morris of the Paradise Beach CafĂ©, and the Kissel Company for continuing its annual Christmas parties. Dahlburg hosts the raffle during the resident’s party with the proceeds going to School on Wheels. Morris recently paid for a party on the beach for more than 200 children from all over Los Angeles County.

School on Wheels’ ultimate goal is to make sure all homeless children are educated so if not they themselves but their children can go on to college. Stevens knows this is no easy task but will continue to reach for it.

“There’s many we miss, but there’s many we touch,” she said.