A woman of worth: School on Wheels’ Catherine Meek

School on Wheels Executive Director Catherine Meek has been selected by L’Oreal Paris to be one of 10 honorees across the country as a “Woman of Worth.”

When Catherine Meek first volunteered as a tutor for the local nonprofit School on Wheels, she thought it was just a way to devote an hour or so each week to a worthy cause. Twelve years later, the native of Scotland heads the organization as executive director and has been selected by L’Oreal Paris to be one of 10 honorees across the country as a “Woman of Worth.”

School on Wheels was first founded 15 years ago by Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher who spent time tutoring local children after school. When she realized the number of homeless children who attended local public schools and learned about their study limitations, she organized School on Wheels to provide tutoring services for them.

Volunteer teachers were recruited, school supplies and backpacks were donated, and one of the more successful local volunteer programs was launched. Stevens eventually was awarded the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child in 2008 and named Person of the Year by L.A. Weekly in 2009. She also received the Minerva Award from then first-lady Maria Shriver as a woman who “served on the front lines of humanity.”

Meek has taken up Stevens’ mantle and says the organization is on target to serve another 2,000 homeless children this year. She has come a long way since she first volunteered to tutor children on Skid Row back in 1999.

“I saw a PSA about School On Wheels and thought, ‘Well, I could do that, it’s just an hour a week,’” Meek said in a break from her busy schedule. “Now, my only regret is that there are so many homeless children, I know we can’t possibly help them all. The toughest part of being executive director is knowing how many more kids are out there that we need to reach.”

In fact, more than 345,000 homeless children reside in California, with nearly 60,000 of them enrolled in local district schools. Since the recession began in 2007, the numbers have only risen and children are found sleeping in cars, personal storage units and homeless shelters around the city.

Meek says her rise through the SOW ranks was “organic,” as Stevens asked her to take on more duties. Meek retired from a successful consulting firm and took on the job of running an organization that has a $1 million annual budget, scores of volunteers across three counties and is chronically short of funds (more than 90 percent of donations go directly to the program – Meek is dogged about keeping administrative costs to a minimum).

She says that School on Wheel’s mission spoke to her own roots. She grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, one of five children of a mother who had to leave school at age 14 after her father died. Meek’s mother impressed on her children the importance of education.

“We were so very poor, but Mother encouraged us all to go to college,” Meek said. “I ended up getting grants for a great university and studied foreign languages. It made me appreciate opportunities that come to you when you have nothing.”

Meek is determined to provide those opportunities to homeless children in Southern California, noting that homeless youngsters typically have more learning disabilities and fewer chances to study in a stable environment.

“I know we are touching just the tip of the iceberg,” Meek said. “But if we can encourage one more child to graduate or even one more child to simply finish their homework and improve their grades, we’ve accomplished a lot in these youngsters’ lives. It’s a major success.”

School on Wheels has seen a lot of major successes. Khadijah Williams was a SOW student who told her tutor she wanted to go to Harvard. Together, they researched application and scholarship opportunities. Williams applied and is in her second year at Harvard, studying sociology with plans to return to L.A. and help homeless communities. Angela Sanchez worked with her tutor to apply to UCLA. She is now a full-time student there and has launched a student chapter of School on Wheels.

L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth initiative is honoring Meek for her work with a $10,000 donation to SOW, plus another $25,000 should she be voted as the National Honoree. Online voting is open to the public November 5-21. Visitors to the site can vote once per day for their favorite Woman of Worth and the honoree with the most votes will be named National Honoree.

Meek said that the most wonderful thing about being an honoree is that so many more people can read about and learn of School on Wheel’s work.

“Even with the recession, last year was our best year ever in donations,” Meek said. “But ironically, the recession also increased the number of homeless kids. We have wonderful donors and extraordinary volunteer tutors. I just want to find more.”

Supporters may vote for Catherine Meek and School on Wheels every day from November 5-21 at www.womenofworth.com.

To learn more about School on Wheels, visit the website at www.schoolonwheels.org.