A single mother, Bonny Roper tried her best to provide for her son Darren while holding down a job managing a Subway restaurant in Weymouth.
It hasn’t been easy. In three years, they lived in eight different shelters south of Boston. It was at a Brockton shelter that Darren met Cheryl Opper, who was just starting a nonprofit called School on Wheels, which tutors homeless children.
Darren was her first student. Saturday, he graduated from Holbrook High School, and in the fall he will enroll at Massasoit Community College. When he finishes there, in two years, he will go on to Bridgewater State University. He will be the first in his family to attend college.
To say that his mother, Opper, and his longtime tutor, Steve Cerce, are proud of him is an understatement. All were on hand to see him collect his diploma. Cerce, a math teacher at Easton Middle School, tutored Darren for five years, serving as mentor as well as mathematician.
Opper has been there for Darren and his mother all the way, accompanying them to meetings with teachers and guidance counselors, writing a letter to help them get housing, providing school supplies and gas money. Whatever college costs aren’t covered by financial aid, School on Wheels will provide.
“School on Wheels has been our backbone support system,” says Bonny Roper. “It helped Darren get through, it helped me be a better mother.”
She adds: “I couldn’t be more proud of my son.”
Darren was in sixth grade when Opper first met him. He showed her his report card and said, “I’m just a dumb kid because I don’t know how to do my work.”
Opper assured him that he was not dumb, that he had moved often, missed some school, and just needed to catch up. Enter Cerce, who taught him how to study, how to do math — and how to play chess.
“He had a great, friendly, outgoing personality, and for a kid in his situation to have that is amazing,” says Cerce. “He never complained about his homework, and he’d always get it done.”
Early on, Cerce taught Darren how to play chess. Even though he lost every game, Darren kept at it. “He never gave up; he’d always want to play another game.”
After a month of playing, Darren finally beat Cerce, who views the achievement as a metaphor for his student’s attitude toward his school work, too. For the past five years, Darren has made all A’s in math and has grown to love it.
“Basically, I was never good in math, and now I’m really good at it,” he says. “I’d like to do something with it in college.” Darren also played on Holbrook High School’s basketball team, which this year was undefeated in regular season play; he tutored a neighbor in math and he volunteers at School on Wheels, stuffing students’ backpacks with school supplies and doing “whatever Cheryl asks me to do.”
Opper founded the organization in her living room eight years ago; it soon moved to office space in Brockton. “Our goal is to break the cycle of homelessness one student at a time,” she says. In Massachusetts, there are more than 50,000 homeless children enrolled in public schools, and 75 percent of homeless teens drop out of high school.
School on Wheels has served 1,100 students in six communities in this area. As its first student, Darren’s graduation is special to Opper, who says she was armed with lots of Kleenex for the occasion.
Darren feels close to her, too. “She has been there since I was little, and I don’t know where I’d be without her,” he says. “She’s like a second mom to me.”
His mother, Bonny, echoes the sentiment. “Cheryl is like a mother I didn’t have. She has been such a big part of our lives, and I absolutely love her.”
To Opper, the Ropers are the heroes: the single working mom who stayed in touch with School on Wheels throughout the moves from shelter to shelter, and the son who refused to give up. Next fall, he will go through the tutor training program and join Opper’s ranks of tutors.
But for a while, he told his mother, he didn’t think he’d go on to college. Cerce sat down with him, and Darren changed his mind. “The thing about School on Wheels is that it’s not just about getting homework done, it’s also to show them why school is important,” says Cerce, who received this year’s Outstanding Volunteer award from the agency.
Homeless children, who have few anchors in life, need the special attention that School on Wheels provides. Besides the tutoring, school supplies, transportation, and other tangible help, people like Opper and Cerce and the other volunteers provide some badly needed TLC for the students — and parents, who in many cases are trying their hardest and doing their best.
Bonny Roper made sure her son did not change schools even during several moves, which meant she had to get a used car and drive him both ways while holding down a job in another town. School on Wheels paid the tolls.
“She drove him every single day,” says Opper.
No doubt, when Darren graduates from Bridgewater State in four years, Opper and Cerce will be at that graduation, too, along with Bonny Roper.