Educating homeless children - Nathan Hand, School on Wheels

written by naehblog
October 5, 2010
Our guest post today comes from Nathan Hand of School on Wheels in Indianapolis, IN.

The anatomy of a movement

Seventeen years ago, Agnes Stevens saw something severely wrong with the world. Millions of children were homeless and not able to focus on their education among the distractions and hardships that come with their situation. She started School on Wheels Inc. – a volunteer-based tutoring effort to support these vulnerable children. She rallied volunteer support and started gathering supplies.

It literally all began by handing out backpacks, pencils, crayons and glue sticks to kids on the street. Today, there are nearly 1,500 tutors spread across Southern California helping homeless youth focus on their education and get the one-on-one help they often need.

Nine years ago, Sally Bindley from Indianapolis, Indiana saw a similar problem. She learned of Agnes’ efforts, flew to L.A. and shadowed her. For two weeks she talked to kids, parents, tutors, staff, shelters and anyone involved in the effort. Taking copious notes she brought back the pieces of the program that she thought would best suit the issue in Indianapolis and got to work. She gathered a couple friends, started collecting supplies, engaged tutors, and built funding relationships. And sure enough,School on Wheels Corp. was born. Today there are over 500 volunteer tutors serving every child in a family homeless shelter in Indianapolis. In addition, all students receive a new backpack packed full of school supplies, a new book, and a new set of uniforms to start each year.

Six years ago, Cheryl Opper from Brockton, Massachusetts recognized some of the same issues that Agnes and Sally had seen. Cheryl came to Indianapolis to learn from Sally and her team about what was working best and what challenges the organization faced. Agnes also visited Cheryl to help lay the groundwork. They identified the concepts of the program that would fit the need in Brockton. In 2004, Cheryl founded School on Wheels Massachusetts. Today, Cheryl and her team have helped over 900 children and families in 10 locations.

This is the start of a movement

This is people recognizing a need and having the courage to address it. Homeless children are possibly the most vulnerable population in our country and, according to Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), there are 3,000+ homeless children in Indianapolis public schools. If we don’t give homeless kids access to education, they’ll be right where their parents are in a few short years – maybe with kids of their own.

Of the investments that can be made to end homelessness, we’re the long-term piece of the portfolio.

Three different women, three different cities, three similar models. That last piece is important – the models are similar, not identical. Newark Mayor Cory Booker noted on Twitter that the same thing is not going to work for every child in every city. He’s right – identical replications are not the solution. What we need is to identify the programs that work and adjust them to fit the specific needs of specific communities.

Moving the movement forward

Successful and effective efforts start with inward questions.

What are you working on? Who is successfully addressing homelessness and education in other places and how? What part of their model will work for your city or town?

Only by examining your goals, the issues around you, and your abilities will we be able to make the appropriate decisions for our respective communities.

What’s right for yours?

Nathan Hand is Vice President of Development at School on Wheels in Indianapolis, IN and can be reached at and on Twitter at @nathan_hand.