Guest post by School on Wheels Ambassador Victor Maldonado
There are enough children without homes in Los Angeles to fill Dodger Stadium. Yet, when we think of homelessness, children aren’t who we typically imagine. With over 65,000 students without homes in Los Angeles County alone, why does child homelessness go so grossly unnoticed? The answer is simple: out of sight, out of mind. These are children who are living in shelters, motels, group foster homes, vehicles, and on the streets. The common thread that connects these children is a lack of consistent education.
I am proud to volunteer with an organization that bridges these gaps in education, giving children experiencing homelessness a fighting chance at a stable life—School on Wheels. Their approach may seem modest: tutor a child for one hour per week. However, the impact on that child’s life is incalculable—it provides these children with the structure and consistency they need. That hour reiterates to them that they aren’t forgotten, that they do matter, and that they can change their circumstances.
And once a child believes in themselves, the hope and optimism they carry is truly inspirational. In January 2018 a student of mine was struck in the crossfire of a drive-by. In the weeks following, I recall trying to be sympathetic to his condition by telling him we could just play games until he felt better. Knowing he had the SATs coming up, he responded, “Games won’t get me into college. We’ll work on math sections.” To contextualize things, this was a student who, not even a year prior, would constantly vocalize that he might as well “pick out a box to live in now” because he felt he had no chance of attending college. It was at that precise moment that I realized how much of an impact that hour a week can have on the self-esteem of a child in need.
School on Wheels is the only non-profit organization in Southern California that focuses on the education of children experiencing homelessness. As such, its’ success, as well as the success of the children it serves, is directly related to its number of volunteers. Sadly, that number is often limited by people’s misconceptions on whether they’re “qualified” to volunteer. In reality, the only obstacle is a person’s willingness to volunteer.
Regardless of your age, background or level of education, your mere presence in a child’s life can be transformative. They will never forget that someone cared enough to show up once a week during the most turbulent time of their lives. Get started today.
A huge thanks to Walnut Robotics FTC Team 6325, also known as The Aluminati, who stopped by our Learning Center on Skid Row to engage our students and teach them all about robotics!
And in other Robot News…
Robotics Program for Girls at Skid Row Learning Center
This summer 15-year-old volunteer Sydney Morrow launched and ran a Robotics Program for Girls at our Skid Row Learning Center. Her project was funded by a grant from the AspireIT program and the National Center for Women’s & Information Technology. The participating students built robots in small groups and learned how to program them. Sydney plans to continue tutoring at SRLC and working with students on coding and robotics. Thank you, Sydney, for your commitment to our students!
“Give the tutoring sessions time. If they feel that connecting and relating with the children is difficult at first then allow time for walls to break down. These children have endured more than we may ever understand and it takes time for them to allow new people in their life. Keep showing kindness and respect to your student and always encourage them on their studying. It is amazing what you can do for their confidence in showing them positivity with their work and letting them know you are proud of them.”
Allison, School on Wheels Tutor
Growing up school was a difficult thing for Angie. “I switched school so many times and it became very hard,” she says. “I got depressed with the constant change and eventually fell very behind in school, so I just gave up and would not show up for school.”
Angie spent a great deal of her youth staying at different foster homes. She would eventually spend six years with a family. However, Angie’s foster Dad passed. Things became complicated and she switched homes again. Her depression grew, but through this pain, she found motivation by focusing on her education and finding purpose in wanting to help others like her.
Currently, Angie is at a group home. With the school year coming to an end and graduation looming, she needed to complete her math credits quickly, a daunting task as math has long been a difficult subject for Angie. She was connected with School on Wheels and tutor Alison Ochoa who focus exclusively on Angie’s math. “My goal during our tutoring sessions was to take each math course one section at a time. We go over multiple problems and ensure that she takes her quiz and understands each individual problem, even if it meant refreshing on prior skills.”
This practical approach worked and Angie completed her credits in time to graduate. Alison continues to explain, “she has exceeded my own expectations.”
Angie and Allison will continue their tutoring relationship as Angie begins college this fall. Angie now has confidence in her abilities and knows that she has a great support system for her educational goals, as well as a friend, in Allison.
Angie’s future goal is to be a social worker. After going through the foster care system herself, she understands how important it is for kids to have someone they can trust and depend on.
“Keep reaching out to find someone that can help you and that you trust,” is the wisdom Angie would like to share with other School on Wheel students. “Believe that there is someone out there for you to trust. Stay motivated and work on building up your self-esteem so you can apply that confidence with your education.”
Already Angie is off to a great start of helping other kids.
Guest post by volunteer online tutor Sanskriti Reddy
“I don’t really like to read.” Since joining School on Wheels, I heard this statement an alarming number of times. As an avid reader, it confused me. What was the problem? I soon realized that part of the reason students don’t like to read is that they simply don’t know how to pick the right books.
That is why I created Words Changing Worlds. This website helps students discover new books through carefully selected lists, quizzes, and student-written reviews.
After all, an important part of reading is not only understanding the text but connecting with it. With Words Changing Worlds, I hope students find they can do just that.
I became aware of School on Wheels through my dear friend Catherine Meek. Once I became aware of School on Wheels and the contribution this organization makes to stop the cycle of homelessness by educating children and providing hope, I wanted to be a part of something that makes this change so I started to volunteer. Catherine is my role model of someone who is making a difference in this world, selflessly and with a tremendous commitment, and I wanted to support her endeavors by giving to this worthy cause. When we worked together to redo the learning center with new floors and painted walls — to see the excitement on the kids faces the next day when they saw their new space made all the hard work worth it. Year after year, School on Wheels continues to enlist more volunteers and educate more students who are now given hope of a different and better future. If you are considering becoming a volunteer tutor, know that you are becoming part of an organization that is the real thing. Every effort, every penny, and everyone who works there is dedicated to making a difference in these kids lives. It is an honor to be able to assist this organization to do what it does.
Victor has been a dedicated Tutor Coordinator with School on Wheels for the past couple of years. He always go above and beyond for the students he works with. – Kristina Rakosh, Region 4 Coordinator
I learned about School on Wheels searching for an organization that strictly served the homeless population. Having previously worked with food banks and other organizations that assist in minimizing the hardships associated with homelessness, I got to see a side of homelessness that often goes unnoticed, which is the impact it has on children. I couldn’t help but feel compelled to do something. So, I made it a point to find an organization that would allow me to have a direct impact on helping break the cycle of poverty that so many children face, and School on Wheels has definitely been that organization. For the last two years I’ve tutored at a group home that consists of 5-6 high school aged boys. As one would imagine, every session is not always the most productive — but I’m constantly reminded that for children who have had to face harsh circumstances, and who often feel that they’ve been let down by family, institutions or society itself, being there on a consistent basis is the biggest service we can provide for these children. It reiterates to them that they aren’t forgotten, that they do matter and that they can change their circumstances. It’s been absolutely amazing watching my students mature into young men who believe in themselves, and I can’t thank School on Wheels enough for the support and opportunity to do so. If you are thinking about becoming a volunteer tutor, do it! These kids need our support.
Albert is A) Flexible — tutored at four very different locations in 2018; B) Dedicated — showed up consistently each week to tutor; and C) Passionate — always provides helpful feedback after each session and asks for additional resources to help his students. – Ian Chan, Program Administrator
I learned about School on Wheels from a friend who was also considering becoming an online tutor. I started volunteering for School on Wheels after learning more about the educational circumstances of homeless children. I realized that not only do these children have “gaps” in their education, but they also need to continue learning in order to achieve their goals in the future and end a cycle of homelessness. Overall, I also understood how lucky other students (including myself) are to have educational opportunities that are often taken for granted, and so I wanted to contribute in any way I could to help School on Wheels students take greater control of their learning. One experience that made me really proud and happy to be a tutor for School on Wheels was when I was working with a student on how to write an essay. In a single lesson, she learned how to structure an entire argumentative essay. At the end of our session, she appeared a lot more comfortable with her writing abilities than when we first started working. Later, her school counselor even told me how excited this girl felt after our lesson. Experiences like these continually support my belief that School on Wheels students have the same eagerness and capability to learn as other students in the country, and that’s why I am always glad to volunteer. Although there may be a few difficulties, such as time availability and technical problems (if you are an online tutor), volunteering for School on Wheels is a great experience and completely worth it. If you enjoy teaching and working with students, tutoring is a great activity, and every student you tutor will benefit. Even if you are a little hesitant about making a commitment or feel a little awkward at first, just give it a try! The staff at School on Wheels provide invaluable resources to help you with your tutoring sessions, so there’s always support if you need it. And lastly, in most cases, tutoring for School on Wheels will also allow you to learn something new about yourself.
I nominated Livvy and Alessandra Gonzalez because they go above and beyond in every aspect for our students. Every week, they spend 2-3 evenings at Thomas House in Garden Grove helping in whatever aspect is needed. Livvy comes prepared every week with her bag of learning materials and I have seen her charm teenagers into actively learning. Aly is a natural with kids (and her being a teenager herself!) and is so passionate about helping in every way she can. I nominated them for Volunteer of the Year as a team because that’s how they work. They’re a team and they both bring so much passion to the organization. – Rachael Christenson, Region 9 Coordinator
Alessandra’s school does an amazing job of keeping parents and students informed of potential volunteer opportunities. The opportunity to volunteer for School on Wheels is posted on their website. We have always tried to help our community with whatever we could — small things like donating clothes, jackets, food, etc. Alessandra was already looking into volunteering outside of the school, and when we came across the information for School on Wheels, we thought that this would be good fit for the both of us to continue to work together and give back to the community. Looking into the faces of the kids makes us smile each and every time. For us, tutoring seems more of a chance to “hang out” with the kids, while getting some work done. We smile whenever the kids finish their homework, finally understand their schoolwork, or when they find a book that truly interests them. Once, there was a student we tutored who was on track when it came to her schoolwork. She was very much into music, poetry, and, for some reason, spiders. We challenged her to write a poem from a spider’s perspective, something that she had never thought to do, and the flicker in her eyes warmed our hearts. One hour a week can make a huge impact in the life of a child. We encourage anyone interested in volunteering to see if School on Wheels is the right fit for them.
Jeanine came to us as an intern and I’ve been grateful to have her on my team ever since, both as an intern and as a volunteer tutor. She could have moved on after her first internship cycle ended, but instead re-upped her assignment with us. At the end of last year, Jeanine’s internship with School on Wheels finally drew to a close, but she has stayed on as a tutor coordinator, continuing to be an endless support for our tutors and students in sites around Orange County. I am grateful to rely on her as a dedicated tutor. Congratulations again, Jeanine, for being the 2018 Volunteer of the Year for Region 10! – Ana Gutierrez, Region 10 Coordinator
I first learned about School on Wheels while looking for a non profit where I can intern. My school has a resource link that has hundreds of non profit agencies available to us. School on Wheels caught my attention because of their mission and how flexible the hours were. As a full time worker and part time student, I was always nervous to volunteer somewhere because of my crazy schedule. When I found out that I could volunteer in the evenings, I was excited. Education has always been an important part of my life and reading about what School on Wheels stood for made me want to get involved. Over the past year, I’ve had many experiences with students that have made me smile. One in particular was when I was helping tutor a third grader with Math. By some miracle, I’ve always understood math. That was one subject I never struggled within school. We sat down and worked on rounding decimals. We were working on his homework and I could tell he wasn’t understanding, at one point guessing when to round up or round down. I got a piece a paper and drew ten happy faces in a row and added a star on the 6th-10th happy faces and told him if the number landed on the happy faces that had stars, we were going to round up and if they didn’t have stars we would round down. After trying this a couple times, finishing homework and extra worksheets, I could tell it finally clicked in him and once I felt confident enough that he understood a bit more I told him we would move on. He then said to me “Thanks for helping me understand this” with a huge smile in his face which of course melted my heart and made me smile for the rest of the day as well. If someone was thinking about becoming a volunteer tutor, I would tell them to do it. I was really nervous about becoming a tutor because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to connect with the students and afraid I wouldn’t know the material well enough to help them. That nervousness went away the first day that I started tutoring; both the School on Wheels staff/volunteers and students were amazing. When I came across material that I had never seen in my life, with the help of other volunteer tutors (and my trusty friend Google), I was able to understand the material well enough to explain it to the student. I leave every session feeling happy and proud of not only myself but the student that I tutor.
Sasana’s contagious personality and ability to make anyone smile is just one of the reasons why she is so amazing. Her dedication to her students, the volunteers, and School on Wheels is something I really admire. In my opinion, there is not someone who deserves this honor more than her! – Riley Hennessy, Region 1 Coordinator
I learned about School on Wheels through my friend Evan, who has been a volunteer tutor for over nine years. He encouraged me, knowing how much I love children and education. He assured that I would love volunteering as a tutor for homeless children, and he was absolutely right. The best part of my tutoring time is seeing how a little encouragement and stability goes a long way. One of my favorite experiences happened during the summer of this year, with two separate students experiencing the same challenge. Two 3rd grade students were really struggling with reading. They were both at the point of saying “I just don’t like to read” and avoiding it at all costs. Each of them had a younger sibling that read really well, and would tease them about their struggles, which I could see hurt these students. I did all I could to try to keep them interested, usually sharing the reading (they read a page, then I read the next). In a shorter amount of time than I expected, they both came to that moment where they had enough confidence in themselves that they read through an entire page or two of a story, often checking on me to see my expression when they read through more words than they believed they could! They both learned to enjoy reading, finally making it past the struggle to simply sound the words out, to actually comprehending the tales that they were reading aloud! That feeling is the best reward for volunteering my time. I you are considering becoming a volunteer coordinator, go for it!! Dive right in!! There is so much support from the School on Wheels staff and on the website, you don’t need to have previous experience to be a tutor and help a struggling student; you just need to have hope, and that’s easy to give, and one hour a week!
Varag has been my go to Tutor Coordinator for the last couple of years. He is one of the most reliable people I know, so determined, and dedicated to his students. He really embodies the mission of School on Wheels and it has been an absolute pleasure to work alongside him! – Riley Hennessy, (Former) Region 7 Coordinator
I was first introduced to School on Wheels by my college advisor, and after reading the organization’s mission statement, I realized that it was a cause I wanted to be a part of. Soon after joining, I founded a School on Wheels club at my college campus to recruit more volunteers for tutoring. Now, three years later, I engage in group tutoring where there can be anywhere between one and ten kids on any particular week. The students’ willingness to learn brings a smile to my face every week, and even though I have been volunteering for three years, my passion for our mission burns as strong as it did the first day. For anyone interested in joining our fantastic organization, please do, as it is a great way to make a meaningful impact on a child’s life by fostering their education to promote a positive future.
Nick has been a wonderful tutor for the past two years that I have known him. He had been a tutor at Delilu, at an emergency group home for girls. Both the girls and the staff adore him and loved his commitment and his support. We have gotten nothing but positive feedback from the staff. He is reliable, creative, and resilient. He is very committed to School on Wheels. He participates in different ways other than just tutoring. He is a joy to work with. – Danait Berhe, Region 2 Volunteer Support Coordinator
I learned about School on Wheels while at a friend’s house party. I talked with a stranger there, and he mentioned that he was volunteering with the organization. I’d been looking for a place to volunteer, so I asked him a flurry of questions about his time there. The next day, I reached out to School on Wheels. I was already working as a full-time tutor in Los Angeles, but my clients were usually from well-off families. I felt uneasy that my skill set was being used merely as a privilege of the wealthy. I was looking for a way to help those more in need. A recent student — let’s call her Fatima — was having a rough transition. In our first session together, she was very standoffish. She told me outright that she didn’t need or want anything to do with me. Week by week, things started to change. She’d answer a question about her life, about her school work, about her favorite TV show. Three weeks in, she completed some math problems I wrote out. By the time it was our last session, we sat side-by-side, talking openly, preparing her for an upcoming American Studies final. I know I only played a small part in her transformation, but it was extremely moving to witness her go from a place of pain to one of trust. Being a pillar of stability and support week by week is deeply important in these students’ lives. Regardless of a student’s academic progress, you are making a difference.
Alex has been tutoring in my region for 8 months now and from the very beginning, her passion and commitment for helping children with their education and going out of her way to make learning fun always stood out to me. Alex is a natural leader and instantly took on the role of Tutor Coordinator at the United Way (the location where tutoring takes place). Her ability to be an incredible role model to students and collaborate with the other tutors at this location asbeen an incredible asset to all. Alex has a passion for helping children. She deeply believes in the power of education, and that passion goes into everything she does during weekly tutoring sessions. Alex is amazing and I’m go grateful for her every day. – Stephanie Swenseid, Region 6 Coordinator
I first discovered School on Wheels through an internet search of volunteer opportunities, narrowing it down to education and then children. I had been wanting to get involved with a volunteer organization after I completed my MBA and had more time to accommodate it, but I had no idea what I wanted to get involved with. Once I began researching School on Wheels, I was shocked at how many homeless families and children there were in my area alone. Education is important to me and I realized I could make a difference tutoring, mentoring and helping them succeed any way I can. There was a student at United Way in Corona who I was sure had no interest in connecting with any of the tutors, always talked back, etc. I couldn’t get through to him but still gave him attention, thinking eventually he’d come around. One day when I was leaving after the session, he stuck his head out of the doorway and yelled “Are you coming back tomorrow?” and I realized that even the students who seem uninterested in your presence look forward to you being there. Committing a small portion of your time to helping others is a win-win situation because you realize how much power you have to help make people’s lives a little bit better. Students in this situation are doing their best and with a little motivation and your help, you can help them succeed in school, make friends and form relationships, and increase their self-esteem. School on Wheels’ staff offers incredible support and constantly reminds you that you ARE making a difference, even if at times you might not feel that way.
This (married) tutoring duo have had a tremendous influence on various students. They come in weekly to assist all grade levels in multiple subjects. They also supervise free time and contribute in numerous ways such as building furniture/bookshelves and providing snacks. After speaking to their friends and family about their experience, Sahand and Pouye received donations of science games and activities for the kids. The games were a hit, inspiring us to convert an office into our STEM Room, ensuring that the kids could have space to explore and grow in their love of the sciences. – Allison Maldonado, Skid Row Learning Center Coordinator
We first heard about School on Wheels from a friend who was volunteering at the Skid Row Learning Center. When we learned about what School on Wheels provides, we felt that this could be a great opportunity for us to provide meaningful help to children in vulnerable situations, and for us to make a lasting impact in their lives. Seeing kids remembering us and getting excited when we show up every week makes us smile. I was once working with a middle-schooler on math, and though it was frustrating for him at first, he got a lot of work done by the end of that session, so much so that he was surprised himself, and excitedly said, “I’m really happy with myself.” At that moment, I thought to myself that this is really why I’m doing this; so that kids realize that they can do a lot more than they think, that they can build positive experiences and actualize their potential. By volunteering as a tutor, you will not only greatly help the children that desperately need it, but the experience of helping them will enrich your life, bring you joy, and teach you so many valuable lessons about yourself.
Helping others is something my grandma raised me to do and enjoy from a very young age. I’ve always enjoyed doing community service, so as soon as I moved back to LA, I googled for volunteering opportunities in my area. School on Wheels was one of the top hits, and I instantly connected with their mission. I chose School on Wheels because I have family who’ve been homeless and multiple family members that were deprived of proper (or any) education, because of economic, political and gender issues. Once I found School on Wheels, I knew this was a cause I could connect to and I wanted to be a part of it right away. I remember when one student had a sudden interest in programming; he announced it out of what felt like nowhere. However, I soon learned that his school was offering a programming class and he felt he couldn’t sign up because he didn’t own a computer at home. So instead, after school, we would watch Khan Academy videos on my laptop and learn about Java. On the first day, we created a snowman, which involved doing things he found difficult (algebra and typing), but he did it with ease. After he made a snowman with Java, he was beyond giddy and giggled for the rest of the session. That day, he took a little more interest in math and we started our application for a scholarship within School on Wheels and he eventually got himself his own laptop. To those considering becoming a volunteer tutor — DO IT! It’s an amazing feeling to be around these children and see the difference you’re bringing about over time. Just come with an open mind, expect to have your expectations blown (constantly), and remember to be positive and consistent! 🙂
I nominated Theresa because she is a dedicated, weekly volunteer who assists in the onboarding of all Region 5 volunteer tutors. Theresa coordinates and conducts all the phone interviews for volunteers in Downtown LA, Hollywood, Pasadena, and Altadena. She screens our applicants and supports them before they even start tutoring with School on Wheels! – Jesse Pasquan, Region 5 Coordinator
I learned about School on Wheels from the LAWorks newsletter. I had been looking for a volunteer opportunity for a while and their mission fit into my interests: homelessness and education. I have been volunteering for many years; I started with my daughter in school and continued looking for opportunities to help others. It is very important to me. One experience that makes me smile involved a student who was very resistant to tutoring and to me as his tutor. He was not happy the minute I walked in, but slowly we started to click. One day, after we finished a session, he asked his mom, “Can she come again tomorrow?” That was the moment we broke through that barrier. I would tell anyone considering volunteering as a tutor that you will make a difference in a young person’s life, even if you don’t think so. Do not underestimate how much you matter to these student’s lives. They do care.
Joe Carmona is nothing short of amazing. He joined our organization in the spring of 2018 and in less than a year has fundamentally changed the impact of School on Wheels in the Santa Barbara community. Every week, Joe visits the shelter not only to tutor his student, but to speak with children and their parents about our services, to provide backpacks and school supplies, and to introduce students to their new tutors. In addition, Joe checks in with other local tutors to ensure they are doing well. Joe does all of this in addition to being a full-time student at UCSB and working a part-time job. Because of Joe’s commitment, we have more students in Santa Barbara currently receiving services than ever before. I am proud not only to nominate Joe for Volunteer of the Year but also deeply proud to have met someone who exemplifies what it means to serve your community and change the world. – Angie Allmendinger, Region 8 Coordinator
I heard about School on Wheels from my mom. When I told of her I was looking for a way to give back, she suggested School on Wheels because she really enjoyed her experience as a tutor. I started volunteering about a year ago, when I got help from a tutor, for my own studies in college. It made such a difference, and I want to be that help for someone else. Almost every meeting with my student gives us both a reason to smile. The most memorable ‘smile’ occasions have been when my student makes a major break-through after we’ve been working on a concept for a while. When I first started with my student, we would spend the first 10-20 minutes doing sets of multiplication tables and I would time him. I kept the papers with the times and dates; when he and I go and look back at them, it is amazing how much he’s improved. He knows his times tables like the back of his hand now. The pride he had after seeing his improvement from 3 minutes to 30 seconds was palpable. To anyone thinking about becoming a volunteer tutor, definitely do it! It’s such a beneficial use of time and energy. The students gain so much and you can tell they feel really special to have a tutor. This is in addition to the personal gratification you get from helping the kids and seeing them improve! It may seem like the tutors are the only ones giving, but truly, tutors get just as much in return; the satisfaction of helping these students is unparalleled.
Kudos to our tutors at United Way in Corona for coming up with a great group project for the students they tutor! I’m so proud of all of you!
The idea was to have each student create a vision board which was divided into four parts. One part included fun facts about the student, second part included what they thought the may want to do for a career, third was their future goals and dreams and fourth was their plan of action to achieve their goals, etc.
Tutors assisted the students over the last several weeks, helping guide them as they designed their boards. Then students presented to the group their vision boards.
Many students who were once shy or unwilling to get up and speak in front of the group were now excited and wanting to share what they came up with. We witnessed so much growth with the students and were incredibly proud!
And to top it off….. We learned that one of our students who was failing many subjects improved his grades, going from F’s to B’s!
A HUGE heartfelt THANK YOU goes out to the tutors for pouring their hearts into helping these children develop a love of learning along with improved self-esteem.