“I never look at the masses. ... I look at the individual. ... Just begin -- one, one, one.”
Cheryl Opper began when her only child started high school. It was November 2003, and she was 46 and wondering what she was going to do with the rest of her life. Thumbing through the pages of Family Circle magazine, she found her answer.
A woman in California had started a program to help children who lived on the streets, to stay in school. There were thousands of children without homes, Opper read. Kids without anyone to advocate for them. Without school supplies. Without paper and pencil to do their homework. Opper thought, there must be thousands of needy children in Massachusetts, too. She could help. She had been a teacher. She had experience with nonprofits. She had time and she had passion. She picked up the phone and began her research.
Five months later she launched School on Wheels of Massachusetts out of her Easton home. She trained volunteers at her kitchen table. She networked and fund-raised and collected school supplies.
“Just begin -- one, one, one.”
Some 21,000 school-age children in Massachusetts have no homes. Opper’s organization would love to serve all of them. But for now it’s the displaced kids from Southeastern Massachusetts in grades K through 12, as well as 30 select college students, who are its focus. While its mission is “to educate children impacted by homelessness by providing academic support and one-on-one mentoring so children can reach their full potential,” School on Wheels does more. This community of loving and dedicated people jumps through hoops every day to get children who are going through the toughest of times, everything they need to succeed in school.
It rents a building in East Bridgewater now, filled with books and backpacks and pens and glue, all the things a child might need for school. And it has a dedicated, hardworking staff, plus dozens of tutors and volunteers.
But there is always another child, and another, and another in need.
Need comes in many forms. The summer before his senior year at Brockton High, Lorenz Marcellus met with hard times. He and his family lost their Brockton home and ended up at a motel in Somerset, 30 miles away. Lorenz, his sister, his grandmother, stepmom, and dad all lived in one room. Lorenz slept on the floor with his sister. When school started in September, he got up at 5 a.m. every day to catch a van that took him from Somerset to Brockton.
Despite his living conditions, he never missed a day of school. In November, he chose to move into Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a shelter in downtown Brockton, away from his family so that he could stay after school and participate in activities. He was scared that first night. He was 18. His roommates were men in their 40s. “I talked to them. I found out their stories. Within days they were rooting for me. ‘Did you do your homework?’ they always asked.”
Lorenz not only did his homework, he managed to graduate from Brockton High with perfect attendance. He then went on, with the help of School on Wheels, to Massasiot Community College where he made the Dean’s List.
Because of his success there, School on Wheels nominated him for the Bridgewater Scholars Program, a level-the-playing-field program initiated by Bridgewater State University, which pays full tuition plus housing and fees for students who have been homeless. When Lorenz was accepted -- only two students a year are -- he went straight to the library and borrowed “How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying)” and then followed the book’s advice. He made friends. He joined clubs. He signed up for study tours. He volunteered for community service. He introduced himself to every dean, every professor. He took every opportunity given to him.
Lorenz is gentle and soft-spoken. He was 13 when he came to the United States. He knew little English and even less about the culture. He has worked hard. But the secret to his success? “It’s School on Wheels,” he says. “School was the only thing I had, and I gave it all I’ve got. School was my way forward. ‘You believed in me,’” he said to Cheryl Opper.
At his graduation last month, he received not only a bachelor of arts in communications studies degree but also Bridgewater State’s prestigious “Award for Student Excellence,” given to students for their outstanding scholastic AND co-curricular achievements.
Homelessness is chaos. Children living in cars. In tents. Sleeping on floors. Never knowing what’s next.
School on Wheels is routine. The same mentor meeting a child every week at the same time in the same place. Guiding. Providing. Helping to navigate the system, applying to college, completing financial aid forms. It’s not the masses. It’s the indivivual. One, one, one.
For more information about School on Wheels, visit www.sowma.org.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.