School on Wheels of Massachusetts Mission: To educate children impacted by homelessness by providing academic support and one-on-one mentoring so children can reach their full potential.
Some days just stand out and this particular Tuesday was one of those days! Lynne, founder of Wear Love® (a vintage inspired t shirt company), and I met with the founder of School on Wheels of Massachusetts, Cheryl Opper, to exchange stories and get to know more about their program. She gave us a tour of their home-site in Brockton, MA. and recalled where her journey with School on Wheels (SOWMA) has taken her.
Pointing to framed pictures of students on the walls and pausing to appreciate a tender poem written by one of their volunteers. Story after story, Cheryl Opper’s heart for the students and volunteers at SOWMA became evident. Though the program was designed to provide academic support through tutoring, there is far more to it than meets the eye. As Cheryl revealed the secrets of the program’s success, love was apparent in every aspect of their mission. The program has inspired, educated, served, loved, and provided support to over 1,384 vulnerable children, uncertain of their future. Simply put, it has changed lives. There is nothing like compelling and inspirational stories, and Cheryl was brimming with them. The first story she shared took us back to November 2003. She was flipping through a Family Circle magazine on her kitchen counter and happened upon “Lessons in Love”, an article written about a woman from California who noticed the hardship and lack of provision homeless children faced during the school year. Out of her humble trailer home in 1993, Agnes Stevens, a retired nun and educator, began School on Wheels. The program provided backpacks, tutoring, rides to school, and lots of love to homeless children. As an educator herself, Cheryl was compelled by what she read of Agnes’ acts of selfless love and wanted to bring the program to Massachusetts.
Only a fourth of homeless teens in the US graduate from high school and there are over 50,000 homeless children in the Massachusetts public school system alone. The average age of homelessness? Age 8. Knowing this, Cheryl Opper understood that someone needed to dedicate time, resources and love in order to see improvements. After talking to Agnes Stevens and the board of School on Wheels of California, she started School on Wheels of Massachusetts, from humble beginnings – in the basement of her home, but heartily bursting with compassion and vision.
Since the program began here in 2004, 3,903 personalized backpacks have been stuffed with school-essentials and freely given to homeless children, and 1,225 volunteers have been trained for tutoring students at the twenty-one various tutor sites in Massachusetts. Not only do they tutor students and provide for school needs, they offer consistent commitment to the child’s education and assistance to families. “What makes us different and unique from other programs is that when our students move, we move with them. And so, we decided to provide that long-term support and stability over a longer period of time,” Cheryl explained to me after mentioning a student they tutored from 9th grade until the end of high school. Commitment has a beautiful way of saying “you are worth it”, and produces stability in a homeless child’s life. It is an act of love. In order to convey to students that they are important and can have a brighter future, SOWMA tutors meet with a child twice a week to tutor, listen, love, and check-in. If a child has to move to a different shelter, the tutors who visit him weekly will continue to meet with him despite the change of location.
An inspiring testimony of the program’s direction-changing love and commitment is that of Tayler Sabella, who Cheryl mentioned fondly as we toured her building. Tayler, once a homeless teen living in a shelter with her father and younger sister, has now graduated from high school and gone to college, thanks to SOWMA. She was only fourteen the year her father lost his job and their house, forcing them to live in a shelter. At the shelter, Tayler and her sister discovered School on Wheels and began the tutoring program and continued with it even after they moved out of the shelter. School on Wheels provided transportation so the girls could continue their education without changing schools and went above and beyond to give them what they needed to succeed. Tayler’s tutors were there for her through the hardest times and all through her high school career, helping pay for Tayler’s uniforms, homecoming dress, cosmetology supplies for courses, and her school yearbook. She became a tutor herself her senior year of high school, making it apparent how much the program impacted her life.
The decision SOWMA has made to persist in tutoring the child, even if they leave the shelter, is the secret to their success and delivers long-term results that School on Wheels desires with every student. Cheryl is most concerned about being able to provide academic stability throughout the child’s entire education. Cheryl put it this way:
“Love doesn’t have a period at the end. And so, we’re not putting a period on it, any of it, for any of our kids. We want our kids to have what they need, when they need it.” -Cheryl Opper Tayler Sabella, along with many others, is a testimony to the program’s magnanimous love and dedication to see children succeed, whatever the cost. And love always pays off. There is an African proverb that says:”If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We were so inspired by Cheryl Opper and her team at SOWMA, Wear Love® will proudly donate $10.00 from the sale of every wear Love® shirt to School on Wheels Massachusetts the entire month of November.
*For more inspiration and information please visit: http://www.sowma.org.
*To shop: wear Love®
*To read more of Tayler Sabella’s amazing story: http://bit.ly/1nrzWd1