School on Wheels

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By Colleen Janssen
Two volunteers sat at tables tutoring children at the Haskett Branch Library in Anaheim.  This scene is repeated throughout Orange County at libraries and other public locations.
The program, called School on Wheels, is part of a network of locations that provides free tutoring to homeless children. The goal is to make sure the youngsters do not fall behind on their learning while in the clutches of chaos caused by homelessness.

By Colleen Janssen
Two volunteers sat at tables tutoring children at the Haskett Branch Library in Anaheim.  This scene is repeated throughout Orange County at libraries and other public locations.
The program, called School on Wheels, is part of a network of locations that provides free tutoring to homeless children. The goal is to make sure the youngsters do not fall behind on their learning while in the clutches of chaos caused by homelessness.
The children may be living in hotels, cars, recreation vehicles, shelters, emergency and domestic violence facilities, or on the streets. The organization and its volunteers help provide academic stability to complete their education.
Students are offered one-on-on weekly tutoring, school supplies, assistance in entering school, help locating lost records, scholarships, guidance for parents in educational matters and for those on Skid Row, a learning center.
“We help students all over Orange County: Anaheim, Buena Park, Cypress, Westminster, Stanton, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Placentia, Brea and more,” said Trish Arias, Regional Coordinator. “We also have programs in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles, and Ventura County.”
Arias was once a volunteer tutor, then returned to take a staff position with the organization. “I was in the military, then came back and saw an opening for a regional coordinator. I applied and it worked.”
She shared that most of the staff members also volunteer as tutors. “Even our Executive Director, Catherine Meek, is a tutor.”
Typically, a tutor spends about half of the tutoring session helping with homework and the rest of the session working on skill-building.  For example, a student might be in ninth grade, but reading at a fifth-grade level.  The organization provides training and resources for the volunteer to use to assist their student with math, reading, or other areas that require help.
The challenge they now face is having more students who need help, than volunteer available to tutor.  Currently, North Orange County alone has 100 students, but only 86 volunteers.
Volunteers tutor once or more per week, based on their availability.  The sessions as scheduled after school, usually between 3:30-6:30 p.m. Occasionally, there are requests for help on weekends and during school hours, so volunteers who can help during those times are appreciated, too.
Potential volunteers need to go online to the organization’s website: www.SchoolOnWheels.org and fill out an application. An orientation is required, plus an interview and test for proficiency in the subject matters. Volunteers can indicate a preference for tutoring with elementary, junior high or high school students. Volunteers age 15 and under must have a parent along when they volunteer. Ages 16 and above, tutor independently.
At a recent tutoring session, Dr. Renu Bhupathy and her 17-year old son, Ashwin Bhupathy, were helping their students at the library.
“My son needed some community service hours for school. He researched organizations and found School on Wheels,” said Dr. Bhupathy. “He joined first and looked at the online orientation. Since I would have to drive him each week, I liked the idea of volunteering so we can do this together.”
Bhupathy, a local physician, tutors a sixth-grader who needed some extra help with math. She uses the organization’s resources to come up with flash cards, puzzles and other activities.  
“The concepts of harder math aren’t hard if you have the basics down,” said Dr. Bhupathy. Her student used to have problems with times-tables, but now, does them easily using activity sheets.
“We are spending some time studying origami,” said her son, Ashwin, of his second-grader. Ashwin used to do origami, and used his knowledge to help his student make a few items, starting with an airplane. The young boy looked fascinated while working on the paper-folding art with his teenage tutor, learning the math concepts of folding in half, thirds, and more.
“I think this is a great opportunity for a partnership,” said Haskett Branch Manager, Guadalupe Gomez. “We can share our programs and many resources the library has with School on Wheels,” Gomez continued.
“It’s a win-win. We offer free Internet access, online databases and STEM programs. I look forward to working with them.”
Trish Arias is proud of the work the tutors do and the ways the organization helps in the community. “We had a 5th grader whose tutor encourage him,” said Arias. “He graduated college with a Bachelor’s Degree and he now wants to tutor.”
“We have an 11th grader at continuation school who we focus on helping graduate and offer some mentorship. He had no idea what he wants to do in the future and he needed a job. His tutor helped him with writing a resume,” said Arias.
“We might not be able to end homelessness, but we can help stop the cycle through education. We can be there as a support and mentor.”
Those wishing to volunteer as a tutor or groups wishing to donate backpacks filled with school supplies may contact School on Wheels at 800-923-1100 to be directed to their local coordinator.

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