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Bella English

A tutor helped her; now she helps others

At a State House ceremony, Tayler Sabella received a $5,000 Rising Star Award that she will use toward college.

The next time you think you have bad luck, consider the case of Christopher Sabella, who lost his Rockland home to bank foreclosure three years ago.

He had fallen behind on mortgage payments because he lost his job as maintenance man for a Brockton chapel. And he had lost the job after his car was struck by another car and wrecked. There was no public transportation in Rockland, and Sabella could not get to his job in Brockton. In fact, it was a 4-mile walk to the nearest grocery store.

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So Sabella, a single father, and his daughters Tayler and Britni shared a room for a week at the Super 8 Motel in Brockton before going to live at the Evelyn House family shelter in Stoughton for nine months. Tayler was 14, Britni 11.

That’s when their luck began to turn. At the shelter, the Sabellas were introduced to School on Wheels, an innovative nonprofit based in Brockton that tutors homeless children. It was a perfect match. While the family was in the shelter, the tutors visited twice a week to make sure the girls didn’t fall behind in their school work.

In 2009, when Chris Sabella got a job at a printing company in Brockton, the family found an apartment and moved out of the shelter. Still, School on Wheels continued to provide twice-weekly tutoring and arranged for transportation so the girls could finish out their year at the schools they started in, avoiding a disruptive transfer.

Perhaps most of all, the nonprofit became a source of stability and support for the girls. When Tayler started attending Southeastern Regional Technical Vocational High School in Easton, where she took academic and cosmetology classes, School on Wheels helped pay for her uniforms, her homecoming dress, cosmetology supplies, and yearbook.

She is 17 now and a senior at Southeastern Regional. After she finished her tutoring with School on Wheels, she decided to take the organization’s training class - and became a tutor herself.

“I get a really good feeling knowing I help little kids with their homework, that they don’t have to go to school the next day and get in trouble with their teachers,’’ she says.

School on Wheels, she says, helped her and her sister stay focused on school when they were in the shelter. “They made sure I didn’t skip a beat,’’ she says.

Tayler and Britni, who is now in the eighth grade, also stuff summer reading bags that School on Wheels gives to homeless children, as well as holiday gift boxes.

Cheryl Opper, executive director of School on Wheels, says Tayler is the first student alum they have had go through their tutor training program. She is also the only student on the advisory council, which her father joined with her.

“Tayler is a fabulous girl, very responsible, very caring,’’ says Opper. “She is really driven to do well and to give back. That’s why she won the award. Sun Life is really big on community service.’’

That would be Sun Life Financial, which recently gave Tayler Sabella a $5,000 Rising Star Award to be put toward college. The grant is for students in underserved communities who are committed to their education, and for the nonprofits that help them. Because of Tayler’s award, School on Wheels will receive a $50,000 grant to help more homeless children.

In nominating Tayler for the award, Opper wrote of her maturity, wisdom, and optimism, “absolutely remarkable given all that she has been through.’’ Tayler is unique, she wrote, “in the fact that she has the ability to view adversity as a positive learning opportunity.’’

Despite the stigma of being homeless, Tayler has shared her story with many other young people in hopes of ending the shame, and encouraging them.

At Southeastern Regional, Tayler is a member of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and participates in drama and fitness after school. She received the High Five award, in recognition of “exceptionally caring’’ students who give back to their school and community.

She has applied to Bridgewater State University, where she wants to major in business, and is anxiously awaiting word. Opper and School on Wheels have also nominated her for the Bridgewater Scholars Program, which would cover her tuition, room, and board. “She will be the first in her family to go to college,’’ says Opper, obviously proud of her young charge.

Opper, a former kindergarten teacher who lives in Easton, should be proud of herself, too. She founded School on Wheels seven years ago, after reading a magazine story about School on Wheels in California. There are now 10 program sites in five Southeastern Massachusetts communities.

Her passion for the children goes beyond books and bags. When she started the nonprofit, her dream was to help break the cycle of homelessness through education. At the time, she told her husband she wanted to be in the front row when School on Wheels children graduated from high school, and then watch them go on to college.

This year, 15 of her former students are in college and Opper has been there to help many move in.

“In one week, I was at Brandeis, Newbury College, and Bridgewater State, and that was the happiest week of my life, besides marrying my husband and giving birth to my daughter,’’ she says. “I’m tucking in their sheets, making sure they have cute pillows.’’

School on Wheels is privately funded, through foundations, business and civic groups, schools, churches, and individuals. In Massachusetts, Opper says, there are more than 50,000 homeless children enrolled in public schools, with the average age of 8. “There are an estimated 12,000 high school students impacted by homelessness in Massachusetts; sadly, only 1 in 4 is predicted to graduate,’’ she says.

Thanks to School on Wheels, Tayler Sabella is in that group, and when she gets her diploma next spring, her family will be there applauding her.

So, doubtless, will Cheryl Opper.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.
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