May 10

Volunteers of the Year


Congratulations to our volunteers of the year!

Adrianne Rippinger
Dana Altschuler
Emma Kobin
Erika Lin
Ernie Okano
Ethan Nguyen
Juanita Bigelow
Martha Doran
Robin Acosta
Shreya Mardia
Wonhee Lee

Adrianne Rippinger

Adrianne is an incredibly dedicated volunteer who is deeply invested in the success of her students. She shows up to each session with a thorough lesson plan but can adapt quickly and tailor the session to her students’ interests and needs of that day. She recognizes the particular gaps in learning and advocates for more resources and attention to set them up for the greatest success.
– Eden Ettenger, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Adrianne Rippinger, Volunteer of the Year

Just after my husband and I retired, we lost our home in the Woosley Fire. While living in a temporary home, I had major back surgery and then COVID hit, a triple whammy. When I finally got back on my feet, I felt a need to give back to a community that had been so generous to us in our greatest hour of need. I assessed my interests and talents and decided to volunteer for two organizations: the California Wildlife Center (because of my love for animals) and tutoring (because I have a teaching credential). Knowing what it’s like to have your home ripped away, I focused on homeless students. I chose School on Wheels because they had a great online platform and loads of support and resources, both of which allowed me to get started tutoring right away, just before the 2021-2022 school year began.

The most rewarding thing about tutoring is watching the progress in each of my four students. One student was a particular challenge for me. In addition to reading three grade levels below his peers and being below grade level across his report card, he was what we teachers call “a runner,” in that he would simply disappear for no reason in the middle of our sessions, sometimes multiple times. (His report card indicated this was a problem in class, too.) Each time he disappeared, I’d text his mom and moments later he’d reappear in front of his screen, sullen and unavailable for learning. It’s taken six months, but he now comes willingly to our sessions and is demonstrating slow, but consistent progress in his reading. He trusts me, and even shares things about school that bother him so he can get my advice. He still has his moments, but I’m playing the long game and finally feel I’m making advances. If that isn’t rewarding, I’m not sure what is.

This past Christmas I sent presents to each of my students. Nothing big, but I thought long and hard about each one and what would be meaningful to them. The most memorable moment I had with each student was watching them open my gift and seeing their face as they reacted. Priceless!

If you have tons of patience, love children and have one or two hours available a week, give these gifts to a child who needs them. It won’t cost you anything but your time. You don’t even need to have any training as a teacher as SOW can help you with that. You just need to care.

Dana Altschuler

“Dana has worked with her student Bryan since Nov 2019 and their match ended in our program in early 2022 due to Bryan and his family getting permanent housing. Dana has worked closely with Bryan and tutored him twice a week to help him get on track. Bryan had and still continues to struggle with basic vocabulary, reading and math. Dana communicated with Bryan’s teachers and was able to get their support. Bryan’s teachers gave her some insight on Bryan’s biggest needs in school and they were able to provide her with materials and advice on what areas work on during their tutoring sessions. Dana has been a huge advocate for Bryan for many years and has a wonderful relationship with Bryans mom. Since the match ended in our program, Dana continues to tutor Bryan independently via Zoom and is still very close with his family. Dana stated that she thinks she will work with him until he no longer needs her support.”
– Yesenia Ontiveros, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Dana Altschuler, Volunteer of the Year

I was inspired by Gary Buchanan who volunteered for a long time with School on Wheels and encouraged me to join School On Wheels close to 20 years ago. I struggled to be a ‘good’ student myself so I do relate to the kids’ difficulties.

The most rewarding aspect for me in tutoring is the joy of being around children, their wisdom and their playfulness.

A memorable experience with Bryan is when he received two little birds as a gift a couple of years ago. He was so moved to own a pet, shortly after he got them he told me in the most sincere way that he loves them so SO much. Touched my heart. He also loves dogs, drawing, playing ball and his family. Also we went to see the Van Gogh immersive experience and it was fun watching his awe at the moving art. We went over his story, saw paintings etc the weeks beforehand.

I suggest any volunteer (or one considering to be ) will try to recall how it was to be a child in the education system, how we thought adults are a different animal, how boring or exciting it felt to read , to do Math and with that in mind and with a huge dose of patience go help any child.

Emma Kobin

“Emma started tutoring at School on Wheels with the two best pre-requisites: patience and kindness. Her student was once shy and a grade behind in reading and writing. During the last year, Emma has seen her student take huge strides in both reading and writing but also confronting new academic challenges. Emma has helped her student with more than just homework, she’s given them the tools to be confident and resilient!”
– Jesse Pasquan, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Emma Kobin, Volunteer of the Year

I was inspired to volunteer as a School on Wheels tutor upon learning of the organization’s goals and values, which always place the bettering of the lives of children at the forefront. I am inspired by the group effort to positively change the lives of children impacted by housing insecurity, as all children equally deserve the right to a full education.

I have found the act of encouraging my student to be the most rewarding because when I encourage her to give her best effort to something-whether it be academic or recreational, I can tell that she internalizes it at least a little bit each time. It makes me really happy to know that I can bring positive energy to our sessions and help her work through stressful situations.

One memorable moment I shared with my student occurred at the end of a session. She always likes to show me art or toys after our work together, but one day she decided to just show me a bunch of different buttons. She showed me numerous ones of varying sizes and colors, and she seemed so happy to have them and to share them with me. It was special to see buttons bring someone so much joy, and reminded me of the beauty in appreciating simple things.

If you are considering becoming a volunteer, do not hesitate! It is an unparalleled and invaluable experience for both you and your student. Becoming a volunteer gives you the chance to change a child’s life for the better, and to help them discover the wonder of learning and growing as a student. Although not every session will be easy and rewarding, the gradual process of aiding a student’s academic career is priceless.

Erika Lin

“Erika is one of the most compassionate and patient tutors I have met. Erika’s forte is establishing a quick rapport with her student and maintaining that relationship. She is deeply invested in her students and is a fierce advocate. Erika is kind, considerate, and reliable. Erika is currently tutoring two students. I admire her dedication and commitment to her students. I am grateful to have her on my team.”
– Manmeet Sodhi, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Erika Lin, Volunteer of the Year

I have always enjoyed working with children and adolescents, particularly in summer camp and hospital in-patient settings. When my good friend told me about this opportunity to not only tutor unhoused students, but also students that have experienced domestic violence — I knew that this would be a new and rewarding experience for me in an academic space. Around the same time, I applied for School on Wheels, I was onboarding new employees at work. I figured out how much I enjoyed teaching and mentoring through that experience, so it was perfect timing!

Some aspects of tutoring that have been rewarding include:

  • Seeing a student gain self-confidence because of a genuine learned understanding.
  • Hearing a student say, “this was helpful.”
  • Challenging myself to learn how to teach different concepts in multiple ways that can be personalized to students.
  • Getting to know my students on a personal level, because I am always humbled by their stories, resilience, and positivity.

A memorable experience was receiving my first student, Haze, that I still meet with to this day. From the start, we immediately got along and I knew this would be a great experience. I am proud of how hard Haze works despite different challenges that arise in her life, while also being incredibly personable and down-to-earth. Haze’s hard work earned her the October 2021 School on Wheels Student of the Month award where she got to share her amazing anime sketches to the School on Wheels community. This past week, Haze recently submitted her first School on Wheels scholarship application. I loved getting to know more about her interests, what she saw herself doing as a potential career, and expressing her passion and dedication as she brainstormed what she wanted to highlight in the scholarship essay.

If you can envision a memorable teacher/mentor that you have had in your life that has made a positive impact on their life, then think about how that could be YOU to a student at School on Wheels! You consistently show up for them during some of the most unstable or transitional times of their lives can mean more to a student than you truly realize. You can be one of the few positive constants in their lives. Simply — do it! You will not regret it.

Ernie Okano

“Ernie works with not one, not two, but FIVE students! His constant encouragement and belief in all of his students are contributing factors to both their academic and personal development. Ernie truly cares about his students and never gives up on them!”
– Maxine Faustino, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Ernie Okano, Volunteer of the Year

I retired a couple years ago from a 40 year career doing accounting type audits on large corporate clients, so wanted to “give back” and School on Wheels seemed to be a good vehicle to help others in need.

I find that tutoring kids in need is very rewarding especially since I can actually see the progress the kids have made as a direct result of my tutoring. It’s amazing to watch my kids that I tutor grow through months and years of tutoring, both in their educational levels and physical growth that I only can see now online.

I have a student that was having such a difficult time reading that he literally was struggling with every other word when we read stories together. After several months of tutoring, he was able to read every word of a 4 page story that we read together. I thought that this was real breakthrough!

I would recommend to others (and have recommended) to volunteer as a tutor on School on Wheels. The advancement of children is very important to the future of our society and unfortunately, the current school system is lacking greatly and needs help.

Ethan Nguyen

I decided to nominate Ethan for our Region 10 Volunteer of the Year because he has always gone above and beyond for our students. Last year Ethan tutored two students and was incredibly involved in our ambassador program. Ethan had a great relationship with both of his students and worked hard to help them fill educational gaps.
– Aeriell Woodhams, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Ethan Nguyen, Volunteer of the Year

When I was younger, my family went on a trip to a Vietnamese orphanage. I always heard that I lived in a “bubble” but I never realized the full extent of this until my trip. The kids lived in bare rooms filled with nothing but bunk beds. Everything each one owned fit into a tiny chest located at the foot of their bed. During the visit, we donated cheap plastic toys, and I was shocked to discover how eager the kids were to receive toys that I would have thrown away without a second thought. This trip opened my eyes the harms of poverty, and I resolved to try my best to do something about it. When I heard about School on Wheels, I decided to join it in order to make a difference in my community and to help people like those in the orphanage.

What I find most rewarding about tutoring for School on Wheels is whenever my students tackle a difficult problem. Watching them struggle to work out the problem, I have to fight the urge to tell them the right answer. Instead, I settle for giving out small hints on what to do. And when they finally solve the problem, a burst of pride swells up in my chest and I happily congratulate them on their success.

One night, my student Matthew was in a bad mood. He did not want to do the addition word problems we were learning and instead played on his iPad. To motivate him, I decided to create my own word problems based around the video game Fortnite. His mood quickly improved and by the end of the night, we were both laughing about how silly the problems were. This experience taught me how important it was to be relatable to my student and to this day, we still practice video game word problems.

Just jump in! When I met my first student, I was extremely nervous but she instantly put me at ease. She was very nice and I realized that she was even more nervous than I was! In my experience, students are very sweet and excited to start learning. If you are thinking about volunteering for School on Wheels, I would heavily advise going for it. Not only do you get the chance to help a student in need, you develop a close bond with them.

Juanita Bigelow

“Juanita is an incredibly dedicated volunteer who is a retired teacher with a deep passion for helping her students learn and grow. Over the years, I have watched first hand Juanita’s deep love and joy for working with her students. She not only helps the grow academically, but personally as well. Any student who works with Juanita is guaranteed a tutor who is their biggest champion. Juanita makes learning fun…she truly helps develop the love of learning in her students. Juanita is an incredible role model for her students and demonstrates grit and determination as she has fully embraced learning our various programs (Big Blue Button, SEL program, etc.). Juanita is determined to continuously learn and that’s a wonderful example for her students. Her joy for teaching is infectious and the impact she makes in the lives of her students huge. Her students LOVE her as do the students parents. Juanita is always sure to include the parents in their children’s development and does an amazing job of making sure they are a part of the learning experience as well. Juanita is an incredible and inspirational tutor.”
– Stephanie Swenseid, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Juanita Bigelow, Volunteer of the Year

I was inspired to become an SOW volunteer tutor when I heard over the media about the SOW organization
dedicated to tutoring children experiencing homelessness in California.

I have found working with the student and communication with the parent over time very helpful. The parent
becomes part of Lyric’s learning group. I was inspired to become an SOW volunteer tutor when I heard over the media about the SOW organization dedicated to tutoring children experiencing homelessness in California.
I have found working with the student and communication with the parent over time very helpful. The parent
becomes part of Lyrics learning group.

I would like to encourage anyone who has patience and desire to offer assistance to a student that needs a little
guidance with no set expectations just the ability to gently lead so that a student can gain confidence in themselves to fly away where ever they want to go!

Lyric loves to draw whenever she begins to write. When I first met her she wrote this, “One snowy night, Taffy
ran away. Annie thought she needed a new friend. She didn’t find a new friend because the animals were wild.” It is hoped that Lyric has found a friend in me. I continue to work on providing her information about a subject that
she may be curious about.

Martha Doran

Martha is an incredible tutor who invests her time, energy, knowledge, and most importantly, her heart in every student that she works with. Martha consistently goes above and beyond not just to support her student but also her student’s parent or guardian and makes them feel like a valued part of the tutoring team. I can also count on Martha, as one of my amazing ambassadors, to help me with any projects I might undertake and to do a spectacular job with outreach or recruitment. Martha is a vital part of our School on Wheels volunteer team and I am proud to honor her as the Region 8 Volunteer of the Year!
– Chris Walsh, Regional Coordinator

Martha Doran, Volunteer of the Year

I wanted to help be a part of a young person’s life in his/her discovery of who and what they are – to help them lead forth to all they have to offer.

The rewards for me come from hearing my tutee giggle or share something with me, getting texts from my tutee’s mom that help me know her and her child better, from learning more about the inner workings of the school system, and from being part of another family’s experiences, even if just a small part of it. Working with SOW personnel, especially my supervisor, Chris Walsh, is a big reward for me.

Recently my tutee confided in me her concerns about her learning process in school. I was so moved by her openness and candor. I felt so trusted by her. We had no barriers between us in those minutes. Two human beings, listening, sharing, touching each other through cyberspace. To feel the walls of her only saying what was perfunctory or polite come down and have that open free flow of ideas and understanding each other was memorable and really went beyond words. So grateful.

If you are thinking of volunteering for SOW, I would say it is rewarding and puzzling and rewarding and frustrating and rewarding and filled with discoveries….you get the drift. My biggest take away is how rewarding it is to volunteer as a tutor, to both see someone else grow and too grow myself… to see the areas where I have grown to be more patient, more curious, more open to learning what its like to be in middle school in the 21st century. I am impressed with how much SOW offers , how many talented people, especially young people, give their time and love to helping the students in our community. SOW is a great organization. Come and see for yourself! And join us!

Robin Acosta

Robin always thinks creatively about how to support her student Anthony. When challenges come up, she’s always quick to adjust and make the best use of her sessions with him. She is a steady source of support for Anthony, and in her time with him has helped him greatly improved his attitude toward reading.
– Emma Gerch, Digital Learning Specialist

Robin Acosta, Volunteer of the Year

During the pandemic, I found myself having a lot more time on my hands than I usually did. So, I started researching possible volunteer situations and came across School on Wheels. Knowing how the pandemic had impacted education, I loved the idea of being able to support a student’s educational experience during this difficult time.

I think the personal connection I’ve built with Anthony has been by far my favorite part of tutoring. It’s both fun and informative. It’s great to hear his view on things, and he’s taught me all about Roblox.

Anthony struggled with reading comprehension and didn’t always want to read with me or on his own. However, after he had the opportunity to pick a “fun” book we could read together, I was thrilled to learn from his mom that he had started reading it between our meetings. It’s exciting to see him embracing reading!

I would highly encourage anyone who enjoys the idea of collaboration and problem solving to consider volunteering. I volunteered because I wanted to contribute but have found the experience personally rewarding.

Shreya Mardia

Shreya has been an absolute rockstar the past year from tutoring a student to becoming a tutor coordinator for our only online group tutoring sites. Shreya also assists in conducting assessments all while being a full-time college student. Her passion and patience for students has been a beautiful thing to watch blossom over the year and wanted to recognize a hard working, strong, leading, and powerful woman supporting our students! Thank you so much for your amazing work Shreya.
– Genesis Torres, Volunteer Support Coordinator

Shreya Mardia, Volunteer of the Year

Growing up in LA County, I noticed many homeless families living in tents and makeshift homes and was always deeply saddened by this. When I learned about School on Wheels, I became determined to use my prior tutoring experiences to help low-income children succeed in school and go to college.

It has been an extremely gratifying experience being a part of so many kids’ journeys, seeing them excel in school and recognize their potential

I will always remember one of the very first students I tutored in-person back in fall 2018: frustrated, one elementary student tried and failed to write his name on lined paper. However, after a little encouragement and practice, he carefully managed to pen his own name. As soon as he saw his accomplishment, his face lit up. He showed the paper to another tutor, cheerfully saying how I had taught him to write his name. In that moment, I was exhilarated to have made such a meaningful impact on him.

To anyone considering volunteering with School on Wheels: definitely do it! It’s only an hour a week, and you could make a real difference in someone’s life!

Wonhee Lee

I nominated Wonhee as Volunteer of the Year because of her dedication and support to her student and School on Wheels. Wonhee is an incredible young lady who is fearless, and she is always willing to help and jump in wherever needed. She always takes the initiative, making a tremendous impact on her student. I appreciate Wonhee so much!
– Kristina Rakosh, Regional Coordinator

Wonhee Lee, Volunteer of the Year

When I was growing up in Korea, both of my parents were working long hours, sometimes even on weekends. However, I was lucky to have strong support from my grandparents, teachers, and tutors throughout my childhood. This way, I never felt alone even in the absence of my parents. School on Wheels was a perfect place for me because I am passionate about supporting and mentoring these young students who are striving to succeed in their education despite their difficult circumstances. As a mentor and a tutor, I want to be the anchor for my students to feel supported and cared for throughout their times of stress.

For me, connecting and building strong bonds with the students has been rewarding but also very humbling. As a student navigates through homelessness, they are met with challenges in their day-to-day life, making it very difficult for them to just focus on learning and growing. As I became close to my student, I was in awe of the optimism and determination my student showed even in the face of difficulties. As their mentor, I feel like it is my responsibility to be emotionally available for them to empathize and encourage them. In terms of academics, I want to make sure that I help them close the learning gaps while making learning new things less daunting and more fun. I want to prepare them so they can have a fair chance in pursuing higher education or finding a career in the future. When a student has an “Aha!” moment when we are solving math problems or learning a new concept, I am filled with joy and hope.

My student is ambitious and wants to become an Olympic swimmer. It is inspiring to see a young person who is so passionate about his dreams, and it makes me eager to help them reach their goals. One time, we made a vision board to visually affirm their goals by collecting photos and quotes from their favorite swimmers and writing out short-term and long-term goals. Doing this was a lot of fun for my student but also gave me a chance to gain a deeper understanding about them and connect at a deeper level.

If anyone is looking for an opportunity to give back to the community while supporting young minds, School on Wheels is a perfect place to start. You will experience major personal growth that allows you to gain a wider perspective on how homelessness can affect young individual’s long-term future. I feel grateful to be in a position where I can offer support to my students and being able to make a positive change in their lives has been the most rewarding experience for me as a volunteer. I hope that anyone who volunteers at School on Wheels will be fulfilled by this joyful experience.Share