By Alexandra Fradelizio | m/Oppenheim Media Writer
For thousands of homeless and unsheltered children, falling behind in school is an occurrence that jeopardizes their future education and livelihoods. The Southern California based organization School on Wheels works with about 3,500 at-risk youth annually“to reduce the gaps in education of homeless kids from kindergarten through grade 12,” stated Executive Director Catherine Meek.
Students who are tutored by the volunteers of School on Wheels reside in Los Angeles County with many meeting at the organization’s learning center in Skid Row. For the majority of children unable to visit the learning center, dedicated volunteers travel to homeless shelters, a nod to the organization’s name.
“We work with the kids that are the most transient,” explained Meek.
“We go to wherever the kids are. They don’t come to us.”
In order to recruit volunteers, the School on Wheels staff conducts extensive interviews and provides a mandatory training program to ensure tutors are able to remain within the organization for the foreseeable future. The process not only effectively matches volunteers with students but also helps to create a “lasting relationship,”Meek stated.
“The most important success factor for our students is consistency of volunteers and the bond that is created between the student and the volunteer.”
School on Wheels accepts volunteers across all age groups and backgrounds. Tutors as young as 12 are permitted to volunteer with a parent or guardian, and the organization has previously recruited individuals with professions in business, science, and drama. A senior volunteer initiative has also been implemented to attract individuals over the age of 55. Ultimately, staff of School on Wheels seek to find individuals who want to both help and guide students in receiving an education.
“It’s very difficult to gain the trust in a short time period of kids who are unsheltered, and they are arguably the kids who need our help the most,” said Meek.
The organization was originally founded 25 years ago by retired school teacher Agnes Stevens who volunteered as an aide at a Los Angeles school. When she discovered that numerous students lived at homeless shelters, Stevens and her friends, including Meek, began to tutor the children and experienced the numerous positive effects of their work.
Eventually becoming the executive director of the organization in 2009, Meek has helped to grow the outreach of School on Wheels and increase the number of children served despite challenges. The Los Angeles Times recently called the current homeless situation in the city “disgraceful”as a decline in affordable housing has contributed to the drastic growth of unsheltered children.
“What we want to do now is to have a bigger impact on each individual student in terms of the quality of the service we provide,” stated Meek.
In addition to offering tutoring sessions, students also directly receive benefits from the organization. Funds from School on Wheels help to give the children school supplies, uniforms, and scholarships. The organization has also instated a number of new initiatives, including digital learning and reading literacy programs, to help diminish the educational disparities among at-risk youth.
With the unrelenting commitment of their volunteers, School on Wheels is helping to pave a positive future for many youth.
“Their lives are just filled with inconsistency and instability and chaos, and so we want to provide a refuge,” said Meek.
“We want to be able to provide that consistency of caring and compassion and support.”