For the nonprofit School On Wheels, change begins when people focus on what they can do to help. “We can’t end homelessness, but we can help a student experiencing homelessness with their school work and studies,” says Sinead Chilton, the Marketing Director at School on Wheels.
Chilton has been with the organization for more than 10 years. School On Wheels is a nonprofit that provides one-on-one tutoring to homeless children throughout Southern California. Chilton started out tutoring and now she’s taken on a director role in addition to weekly visits with students.
“My very first student moved out of state, but we still keep in touch via Facebook,” Chilton said. “He is at college training to be a mechanic and that makes me very proud to have had a positive influence in a time in his life that was very chaotic and traumatic.”
Angela Sanchez received tutoring through the program when she was in high school and is now a grad student at UCLA. She explains the name jokingly. “School On Wheels doesn’t have a bus, but the wheels are metaphorically the tutors," Sanchez said.
Tutoring locations include group foster homes, domestic violence shelters, transitional living centers and even public places such as libraries and coffee shops.
According to Homeless Children America, children who experience homelessness are twice as likely to repeat a grade in school, be expelled or suspended, and drop out of high school. The National Center on Family Homelessness found that less than one out of four homeless youth even graduate from high school.
Chilton believes “education is key to ending homelessness.” Southern California’s large population of homeless children allows the nonprofit to help thousands of students. In 2014, School On Wheels was able to tutor more than 3,000 children in more than 200 shelters and other locations.
Melissa Schoonmaker, the Homeless Education Consultant for Los Angeles County, says School On Wheels is doing something amazing. “Districts have a lot of things that are going on on their campuses after school for tutoring, but what if you have a student who needs to get back to the shelter so they make sure they have a place to stay that night?” said Schoonmaker. Most shelters have check-in times during the day in order to guarantee a bed space for the night. Sanchez went to school in Glendale, but stayed at a shelter in Pasadena that had a 5 p.m. check-in time. She says if it weren’t for the tutor at the shelter, she wouldn’t be where she is today.
School On Wheels also functions as a resource for schools and various homeless services. They provide volunteer training, school supplies, backpacks, scholarships, after-school and summer programs and digital learning.
The organization not only strives to create change in the futures of homeless children, but also empower people to create that change by volunteering.
“We have proved the power that volunteers have in making a difference in their community,” said Chilton. She says measuring their success includes the number of students helped as well as the number of volunteers.
The first day of School On Wheels took place in a park with one tutor named Agnes Stevens. She was a retired teacher who had worked at a school with a large population of homeless children. It was in her classroom that she realized most homeless children needed extra support to succeed in school. She founded the nonprofit in 1993 and she left the program with more than 1,800 tutors when she passed away in February of 2015.
Stevens “always said it takes so little to make a difference in the life of a child and she was right. Just by turning up every week our volunteers are… a constant in the life of a student whose life is constantly in flux,” Chilton said.
When Sanchez thinks about the impact that the program had on her life, she says that if she ever reaches a point where she can financially give back, making sure School On Wheels is taken care of is at the top of her list.
Chilton says the success of School On Wheels is founded on the educational success of homeless students. Stevens once said, “It takes so little to help a child or a teen, but it makes such a huge difference in their lives.”
This story is part of a partnership with USC Annenberg to explore what's working in Los Angeles and beyond.