MAKING A DIFFERENCE:
It’s hard to concentrate on reading, writing and arithmetic when you don’t know where you are going to lay your head at night.
Homelessness can be overwhelming and, reportedly, can interfere with a child’s education.
That’s the plight of a number of school children, who, as a result of homelessness, are falling behind in their grades. Statistics show they are nine times more likely to repeat a grade and four times more likely to drop out of school entirely.
School on Wheels is a nonprofit that is addressing the situation volunteer by volunteer by providing free tutoring and mentoring to children from kindergarten through 12th grade who are living in shelters, motels, group foster homes, vehicles and on the streets of Southern California.
As it says on its website, School On Wheels is the most rewarding volunteer work you’ve never heard of.
The organization is reportedly the only nonprofit in Southern California dedicated exclusively to the educational assistance of children experiencing homelessness. It was started 26 years ago and has served more than 50,000 students. The average age of a student who benefits from the program is 8.
Sinead Chilton, 46, is the chief development and marketing officer for School on Wheels, a position she has held for two years. She started as a volunteer with School on Wheels 15 years ago and has watched it expand ever since.
“Our goal is to shrink the gaps in a child’s education and provide them with the highest level of education possible,” said Chilton, originally from Yorkshire, England. “We do this by providing each child with a one-on-one volunteer tutor. We also give each student a new backpack. If they are being tutored online, we provide them with laptops or tablets.”
School On Wheels operates throughout the community in various locations including the School on Wheels Skid Row Learning Center and another learning center in South Los Angeles.
“Volunteers are our wheels,” said Chilton, who graduated from Liverpool University in the United Kingdom. “They are reaching students in six counties in Southern California and are covering a span of about 2,500 miles. They go out to the community and help students with their homework where they are.
“Some kids are in motels and some are in foster care. We help them with what they need to be successful in school.”
School on Wheels partners with hundreds of shelters throughout Southern California — from Santa Barbara and Orange County and everywhere in between.
“We have the best volunteers,” Chilton said. “They will go into shelters and even on Skid Row to help the kids. Skid Row doesn’t have a library or green area or park space. There is no safe place for kids on Skid Row.
“Statistics show that there are about 163,000 children without a home in Southern California. That’s a lot of children.”
Growing up in Yorkshire, Chilton said when she came to Los Angeles she had no idea the homeless situation was so huge.
“I didn’t realize there were that many children who were homeless,” she said. “It threw me for a loop. I couldn’t understand it. What I do understand is how those students who benefitted from the program come back as volunteer tutors. They want to give back.”
Volunteers who usually meet with the students in public spaces for the safety of the kids, also help students with college prep applications to help them get “college ready.”
In addition, there is parental support, assistance in entering school and even scholarships.
Chilton said School on Wheels’ volunteers are fingerprinted, go through background checks and various training, including domestic violence shelters.
“We are sensitive to confidentiality,” she said. “Our volunteers are experienced in trauma because some of the volunteers go into group foster homes. We have to make sure they are trained and well-prepared.”
Chilton said some students find it difficult to focus when trauma becomes debilitating.
“Sometimes volunteers are friends before they become study buddies,” Chilton said.
In 2019, 2,300 School on Wheels volunteers helped tutor 3,621 students. The organization also gave away 8,000 backpacks and lots of school supplies.
“Tutors will use about 90,000 hours tutoring 3,000 students,” Chilton said.
School on Wheels students are identified through various shelter partners. Some of those students move four to six times on average.
“If they are constantly moving from school to school, they are always on the back foot having to adapt,” Chilton said. “The basics get missed as does multiplication, division and more.”
When a volunteer first meets with a student, the child is given an assessment to locate where they are academically so the person working with them can fill in the gap. They also talk to the parents and if requested, volunteers will talk to a student’s teacher about what is needed to keep them on track.
The average age of an School on Wheel volunteer is 26-32. They come from all walks of life including lawyers, moms, rocket scientists, doctors, actors and college kids.
Some tutors work with the same kid, others work with students in a group setting, and others change frequently because families in shelters come and go all the time. Chilton said the volunteers understand that they may have to tutor someone different each week.
“You can tutor a kid when you’re 12 as long as you’re doing it with a grown-up,” Chilton said. “At 16 you can do it on your own. The only qualification is that they have a love of learning and a high school diploma. We provide the training. All we ask for is a year commitment.”
Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher, founded School on Wheels in 1993. Stevens, who died in 2015, understood the importance of education to students devastated by homelessness and the unique challenges they face.
“She was a former nun,” Chilton said. “She said, ‘If you have an hour to go to church, you have an hour to help a kid.’”
School on Wheels is currently looking for more volunteer tutors and is seeking financial support.
Its annual budget is about $2.2 million. The organization is funded through private donations, individuals, foundations and corporations.
“We do not receive any government funding,” Chilton said. “We never want to be beholden.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Darlene Donloe