Educating the homeless one child at a time

Most children come home from school, throw their backpack on the floor and reach into the fridge for a snack knowing they are safe with a roof on their head. For homeless children the scenario is quite different.

Ariana was an honor student in New Jersey. When her family moved to California and encountered some bad times, landing them in a Santa Monica shelter, the fourth-grader’s school work suffered and she had to repeat the grade.

But when Sharlet Cohen, a Malibu resident and volunteer for School on Wheels, became involved in her life and started tutoring her, Ariana’s school work improved dramatically.

Cohen explained that when children go to a regular school, they usually have friends, teachers and a familiar lesson plan, are continuous. But for the children whose families move and for whom economical circumstances are difficult, frequent school changes can be hard. New schools bring new rules and new teachers.

Fortunately, for some, there are people who care enough to donate time and love as they tutor homeless children in the shelters where they live.

School on Wheels Inc. is the brain child of Agnes Stevens, a retired teacher who lives in Paradise Cove.

Stevens started the organization on her own, tutoring children in shelters. Initially, her biggest problem was to find a shelter that would allow her to tutor. They have to be careful who they allow in, said Cohen, who has volunteered for the organization for the past three years.

School on Wheels, headquartered in Paradise Cove, now has 600 tutors.

Bill Davis, Outreach and Public Relations person for School on Wheels, said, “It is one of the few local public interest groups that has flourished.”

“It’s such a compelling need, that people who hear about it want to help,” said Cohen.

Aside from tutoring, the organization also provides school supplies with the help of local schools and churches.

“Every school and every church in Malibu has helped us,” said Davis.

Cohen is not a teacher, but her background as a parent, raising two boys, made her suitable for the job.

“My fear about not being able to teach was unfounded,” she said. “They have many people from all walks of life.”

“My first pupil was a little boy who had great interest in art,” said Cohen. “So we started by reading a story and drawing a picture that relates to the story.”

After he moved out of the area, Cohen’s next student was Ariana.

Cohen said tutors focus on a child’s academic life and do not get involved with the student’s personal circumstances and parents, because it is not constructive.

“One of the other things we try to instill,” said Cohen, is “that getting an education is their job.”

“It will be their ticket to go where they want to go and enable them to take care of themselves in the future,” she said.

Aside from the tutoring and help with supplies, Ariana also has benefited from the generosity of her “mentor” who has taken her on fieldtrips to the Getty Museum and the UCLA Acquarium under the Santa Monica Pier.

“Before the day was over she had a volunteer’s job there,” said Cohen.

After tutoring Ariana for two years, the child’s mother was able to get an apartment in the Rampart area.

But Ariana did not want to change schools. Instead, she gets up at five o’clock in the morning and takes the bus alone, so that she can remain in the Santa Monica School she has attended for the past two years.

“I am reluctant to take other students because I am still hoping to hear from Ariana,” said Cohen.

But the organization does not know where she is right now, she said.

“When you work with these kids they are so exuberant and eager, kind and sharing and they have so little,” said Cohen.

“The goal of the organization is to be out of business,” said Cohen. Meaning, when there are no more homeless and they are educated and able to help themselves, then there will be no need for School On Wheels.

But until then, the organization still needs help, said Cohen.

Information about School on Wheels may be obtained by calling 1.800.923.1100.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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