The organization founded by Malibu resident Agnes Stevens helps homeless children receive an education.
By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times
On any given night, there are an estimated 88,000 homeless people in Los Angeles; approximately one-third of them are children. One Malibu woman has made it her life’s work to ensure that even those with no address have the opportunity to receive an education.
School on Wheels began 16 years ago when Malibu resident Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher, decided she wanted to tutor a homeless child and give him or her the rare opportunity to continue an education, even though he or she was without a home.
“In 1985 I picked up a book kind of accidentally,” Stevens said. “It was Jonathan Kozol’s ‘Rachel and Her Children.’ This was a study of homeless families in New York City. I had no idea there were complete families that were homeless. So I remember saying to myself ‘When I retire, I’ll find a homeless kid and tutor them.’ “
Stevens began working with homeless children in Santa Monica and Venice, teaching them in public parks and encouraging them to stay in school and work hard to excel.
Since 1993, hundreds of volunteers have donated time and energy to School on Wheels to tutor homeless children, and the program has continued to grow each year.
Stevens said the goal for 2006 was to work on the communication and database systems for the organization so as to better keep track of the children and volunteers. SOW has also appointed regional coordinators to oversee various jurisdictions, which include South Los Angeles, Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles. There are also chapters in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, as well as Indiana and Massachusetts.
Stevens said the goal for 2007 is to double the number of volunteers. In 2006 there were approximately 335 volunteers who donated about 70,000 hours of tutoring time to more than 3,000 children.
“People want to be a voice for the homeless children,” Stevens said. “People need to know that in their neighborhood there are little Americans trying to get an education. A kid’s number one job is to go to school and learn. These children are going to school to learn but have so many little struggles and are always moving.”
Stevens stressed that the volunteers are the core of the organization and the requirement is only one hour per week of tutoring. The organization’s name is derived from the idea that the tutors often drive to parks, parking lots, abandoned automobiles, wherever children are living, in order to teach.
The first thing the volunteers do is to enroll the children in school. Stevens noted that even if the child moves or cannot attend, the paper work is already in place for when they can attend regularly and the paperwork can help keep track of the youth.
School on Wheels also often provides school uniforms, Metro fare to get to school and a toll-free phone number to receive homework help or to keep in touch with tutors. This year, the organization also gave away 5,000 backpacks as well as school supplies and books.
SOW works with various homeless shelters around the county and sometimes volunteers to teach at hotels and motels where children may be living. They also teach at campgrounds in Ventura, parking lots, parks and specially designed learning rooms set up in shelters that provide a safe, quiet place to teach.
“We are expecting wonderful things for 2007,” Stevens said. “We need volunteers. We don’t take any federal or state monies and we’ve done that from the very beginning. Most money is given to faith-based [organizations] and we’re not. We take everybody.”
Stevens said private donations are always welcome and they have received grants from the Ahmanson Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, The Mark Taper Foundation and Ella Fitzgerald’s charities to name a few.
“We would like to expand our donor base,” Stevens said. “Every volunteer we have is just another kid helped is the way I look at it.”
Stevens said Malibu residents have been invaluable with donations and volunteering.
“There are people in Malibu who don’t know what we do,” Stevens said. “I want them to know their fellow citizens are reaching out to these kids. Every year for the last four years Bob Morris [of Paradise Cove Beach Café] has thrown a Christmas party for 200 of the homeless kids. Malibu residents greet them and the Sheriff’s department comes with all kinds of gifts and the Fire Department brings Santa Claus. It’s such a beautiful experience.”
Stevens said there are many Malibu volunteers and donors, some who wish to remain anonymous.
Stevens moved to Malibu in 1989 and said she fell in love with the ocean. Before going to downtown Los Angeles to work in SOW’s storefront office/center that Stevens opened on Skid Row in 2000, she takes a walk on the beach.
“I never regret a day of moving to Malibu,” Stevens said. “I love Malibu. I love the people. I love walking on Zuma Beach in the morning and that makes all the difference in the world. It puts everything into perspective. We are fortunate.”
“It takes so little to help a kid,” Stevens added. “You judge a nation and the world on how you treat kids, and right now in the nation and the world, kids are not being treated the best. They are not first on the agenda for most countries.”
More information on how to volunteer or donate to School on Wheels can be obtained at the Web site, www.SchoolonWheels.org, or by calling 213.896.9200.