Southeastern Mass. Nonprofit Fights Homelessness by Supporting Displaced Youth

As Massachusetts students settle into a new school year, one group south of Boston continues its decade-long work to support youth impacted by homelessness.

Since 2004, School on Wheels of Massachusetts has logged more than 34,000 hours mentoring more than 2,200 students impacted by homelessness in 30 different locations across southeastern Massachusetts, according to its website.

“It’s really so much more than a homework club,” said Founding Director Cheryl Opper. “It’s designed to build stronger students who can be advocate for themselves and be successful in school and beyond.”

What makes School on Wheels different from other tutoring groups, Opper said, is that volunteers help students where they are: shelters, hotels and learning centers. She said homeless students often cannot stay after school for help, and even if they can, they’re often not given the direct attention they need to thrive.

“It’s a one-on-one tutoring,” Opper said of the organization. “And mentoring is just as important as the torturing; that comes every week, just for them.”

According to its website, more than half of School on Wheels’ 11 torturing locations this fall are in Brockton.

Brockton Public Schools Title I Coordinator and McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison Karen McCarthy said that although the homeless population of the city is decreasing, the community hosts three homeless shelters, 81 state-subsidized apartments and three hotels that have housed homeless families for years.

“[Brockton Public Schools] builds relationships within the classroom and the school,” McCarthy said. “[Schools on Wheels] can provide support tailored to a specific child.”

Although the state does offer some assistance to youth affected by homelessness, Opper said School on Wheels fills gaps the state just can’t afford.

“Its building a partnership so we can build a fabric, a sort of quilt, around these students to give them the guidance to break the cycle of homelessness through education and mentoring,” she said.

Opper said School on Wheels works with students affected by homelessness, not just children without a home. This means that even as families are moved from temporary to permanent housing, the organization continues relationships to ensure youth are getting the support they need, she said.

“Just because you put a roof over someone’s head, it doesn’t heal the chaos and trauma they experienced during homelessness,” Opper said.

School on Wheels also offers a program designed to support secondary school students called High School Plus, she said. According to its website, one in four homeless high school students will graduate nationwide. Opper said that 93 percent of youth enrolled in High School Plus receive a diploma.

Since this program began in 2009, Opper said 14 School on Wheels students have graduated from college, Opper said. According to its website, 35 High School Plus students are now enrolled in higher education.

But School on Wheels of Massachusetts isn’t confined to the southeast of the Commonwealth.

The nonprofit has distributed more than 9,000 grade-specific backpacks stuffed with books, pencils and other school supplies to youth affected by homelessness across Massachusetts, according to its website. Opper said that just this fall, School on Wheels provided some 1,500 backpacks to those in need.

The organization has built relationships with schools, religious organizations and shelters across the state to distribute these supplies.

“Its up to all of us as committed citizens to embrace this crisis of homelessness for children and do something about it. If we don’t,” Opper said, “then we are going to be servicing these children as adults living in shelters.”

Although it does receive some state funding, Opper said this is only a fraction of what the organization needs to operate. The rest of its funding, she said, comes from grants, individual donations and money raised at events.

Opper said School on Wheels of Massachusetts will host a gala on Nov. 17 at Showcase Live in Patriots Place in Foxborough.

Bret Hauff, a senior journalism student at Emerson College, can be reached at bret_hauff@emerson.edu. Follow him @b_hauff.

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