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School on Wheels in California

by Albert Elzas
Several years ago, working as a volunteer tutor at the Coeur d'Alene School in Venice, California, Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher, was struck by the special plight of children from homeless families. "I was working with kids at risk. Most were from homeless shelters," Stevens said. One day in 1993, two homeless brothers asked her to help them. Constantly moving about from one shelter to another, and thus from one school to another, they had never learned to read. She went home and prepared materials and lesson plans, only to discover the next day that the boys had moved yet again and were gone.

Out of this incident came School on Wheels which Stevens created to connect tutors with homeless children. Volunteer tutors are paired with the children, meeting them wherever they can, typically one hour a week, in shelters, motels, libraries and even restaurants. As the children move from one place to another, they or their parents can call School on Wheels' 800 number, and if they are still within the Los Angeles area, the tutor will try to follow. The non-profit organization has developed and provides a handbook covering educational concepts that the children can use on the days they are not in school, and it distributes donated books, school supplies and backpacks to them as well. The tutors, who come from all walks of life, receive support as well through seminars, lesson plans and individual help from a paid coordinator of volunteers, who oversees the 100 to 150 tutors now in the program. When needed, the coordinator also helps the children's families handle the paperwork of transferring their child to a new school.

Tutoring provides more than just educational benefits; it allows the children to receive an adult's undivided attention at least for an hour each week. "A tutor coming every week just for them is a big help and a morale booster," says Stevens. "Since the beginning, we have reached nearly 1,000 kids." School on Wheels continues to solicit volunteers and donations to support its program in West Los Angeles, but Stevens is now working on starting other groupings of about 150 tutors throughout Southern California. In the near future, School on Wheels hopes to offer its expertise and materials to others throughout the country so they can fund and run their own local Schools on Wheels.

School on Wheels is a non-profit organization. Donations and inquiries should be sent to P.O. Box 2283, Malibu CA 90265-7283. The phone number is 310-589-2642. # Albert Elzas has been a weekly volunteer classroom tutor in L.A. city schools since 1991 and is treasurer of School on Wheels.

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