May 1, 2016 by poverty2professional
The life-blood of any nonprofit worth its salt is its community of volunteers. Volunteers are the folks who embody the mission and values of the nonprofit and they do it willingly without cost to the organization, donating their time and talents. This past month of April is dedicated to honoring volunteers of all kinds. In this week’s post I would like to recognize the volunteer and team at School on Wheels, Inc. (SOW). Without SOW’s support, the lens through which I recall homelessness might be very different.
School on Wheels, Inc. serves K-12 students grappling with homelessness throughout Los Angeles. At the core of SOW’s heart is action inspired by compassion. The first embers for the nonprofit sparked in 1993 when Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher, noticed the students who entered her classroom while in the throes of homelessness. Of course, the students’ life outside the classroom clearly affected the one in it. Enlisting the aid of volunteers who were as determined to see the students succeed as she was, Agnes established School on Wheels, Inc. The “wheels” have always been metaphorical, referring to the dedicated tutors who go to where their students are.
Over 20 years later, School on Wheels now serves 12 regional locations, changing the lives and opportunities of homeless youth throughout Southern California. Providing academic support through tutors, tracking down school transcripts, and sharing resources with parents and concerned community members alike, SOW is the triage that so many homeless students need, but rarely receive. For a full list of their services see either P2P’s listing of them or visit their website. Most recently, SOW has extended its influence across the Southland to include locations in Santa Barbara, Orange County, and San Bernardino County. I had the pleasure of meeting as a direct service recipient, i.e. I needed a tutor.
Before we get into my School on Wheels experience, let’s get one thing straight: I elected to be a history major in college for a reason. Clear? Good.
In senior year of high school, I stocked myself with five AP (Advanced Placement) classes. That’s an insane amount. But my school had the capacity to provide them and, considering how little time I had to volunteer beyond my usual tutoring post while being homeless, the next opportunity to boost my academic profile was my best shot.
Here’s the kicker: I didn’t have the best college counselor.
“I don’t think I should take AP Calculus,” I said at the end of junior year to my dad.
“Then don’t sign up for it! I thought that’s why you took AP Statistics. Because it was supposed to be easier. And look! You still only squeaked by with a C.” He snorted and dragged on his cigarette. “How’re you think you’re gonna manage calculus? You better not sign up for that class.”
“But the counselor said that UCs look for four years of math.”
He cut loose with a string of profanity concluding with an emphatic, “That’s bullshit! You’ve already taken AP Stats. That’s at least a year beyond the required math class. You may as well call yourself qualified with four years.”
“But it’ll show I don’t have a math class in my senior year. I don’t want the admissions people to notice that I didn’t try another year of math.”
“Notice? I’ll tell you what they’re gonna notice. They’re gonna notice you FAILING a math class!” He stubbed out his cigarette. “You used to have enough trouble tallying up our grocery bill when we went shopping for the home. You’re gonna crash and burn if you take that calculus course.”
My father was not a “you can do anything you put your mind to” parent. He was a realist. And like a good teenager, I didn’t listen to my dad when I should have. I signed up for AP Calculus that spring. I had the whole summer to forget about it. And I hit the wall on Day 1.
“This is a diagnostics test just to see where you are,” the teacher said.
I didn’t even get one point for writing my name correctly.
Thankfully, a little alarm went off in my head. “I need help NOW!!”
Equally fortunate, I had noticed some strange people entering the shelter, coming and going, but they didn’t work in the kitchen. They weren’t staff. And they were there just for the kids. Nobody else. What breed of volunteers were they?
I found out only a few months before starting my calculus class. They were tutors.
The tutors’ site coordinator was a staff member for the organization that the tutors volunteered for: School on Wheels, Inc. She explained this to me and my dad over dinner one night. Since most tutors usually arrived at the shelter either during or just a little after dinner time, the SOW coordinator was making her rounds to check on them.
“And they come by how often?”
“The commitment is for once a week, but some tutors might choose to work with their students more frequently than that.”
I nodded. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Do you need a tutor?”
I looked at my dad who said, “Don’t be stupid,” which is his way of saying, “Don’t be proud.”
This was spring of my junior year, though. I was managing my classes well and I didn’t feel like I needed assistance right then. “I’ll check back in when I do,” I said. Always leave those options open!
Then fall of 2008 rolled around and I was sinking fast in my calculus class. When I got back to the Pound that evening, I hunted down the School on Wheels site coordinator. “I need a tutor!”
She looked delighted. Happy to help. “What subject?”
“What kind of math?”
Her smile lost a few molars. “Ok. It might take us a little while to find someone who can tutor in that area.”
But School on Wheels came through. And they didn’t just find anyone. They found me a graduate student in astrophysics from CalTech. I literally had a rocket scientist helping me with my math homework. My tutor — let’s call him Amir — visited my shelter every Monday just to sit and slog through derivatives and computations for an hour or however long I needed. Incredibly patient, Amir never rushed me, rarely missed a session, and never, ever made me feel stupid. He was encouraging, he was supportive, and, most importantly, my tutor’s perception of me as a person wasn’t impaired by my socioeconomic label like so many others.
Amir saw me as a person, a girl who had lost her home, her privacy, and wanted more than anything to go to college. Having my experienced humanized made an impact in my life. My tutor saw me as a human being rather than someone that most people look away from when they pass on the street. If I was having a difficult day, he took time out in the beginning of our session to catch up and unpack. My School on Wheels tutor wasn’t someone who just showed up to drudge through my homework with me. We talked about my hopes, his education, and our families. Amir’s family was split between Algeria and France. When he went all the way back home, he brought me back postcards and trinkets.
In getting to know me, Amir was also able to offer me further opportunities to enhance my education and aspirations. In winter of my senior year, he took me to a Stephen Hawking lecture. A little later, my tutor gave me a campus tour of CalTech. I had never seen a college campus before. Funny, right? Applying to eight universities and not knowing what my selection looked like until I enrolled in it. It’s probably because of my tutor that I made the jump for a university as opposed to a community college. Most people said that community colleges were cheaper, a more “financially affordable” option, but when I saw CalTech I knew I couldn’t settle starting at two-year. The serene green landscapes and architecture, the intensity of the campus atmosphere that seemed in direct contrast — I wanted that to be my college experience. My tutor inspired me.
There’s a ton of great ways you can volunteer in the specific sector of homelessness, but I will say that nothing makes a bigger difference for a kid experiencing homelessness than to have an adult who makes time to consistently spend time with them. It can be tutoring, mentoring, whatever else to fill that space. The end result is making an impact. That human connection — that’s the psychological impact that so many folks experiencing homelessness need to see beyond their dire and often unnerving circumstances. School on Wheels identified this critical need for the youngest and most vulnerable population. Its tutors act with delicate and individualized care to serve children and youth in homelessness. What’s more is that they provide the support for one of the last avenues of social mobility still open: education.
For dedication, innovation, and unrivaled spirit, thank you, School on Wheels.
Wanna get involved? Find out how to become a School on Wheels tutor here!