Astronomers have recently discovered an extremely prolific star factory in a very remote galaxy. This galaxy is 12.3 billion light-years from School on Wheels on the corner of downtown’s Fifth and Pedro streets, a tiny bright light in the decidedly dark universe of a childhood on Skid Row. School on Wheels is a refuge from the crack, the dope, the dealers, parolees, pimps the mentally ill, the missions … from childhood homelessness.
Agnes Stevens is the founder and director of School on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that sends tutors to work one-on-one with homeless children at shelters and libraries, in foster homes and after-school programs — wherever the kids are — and gives them basic school supplies.
A Boston native, former nun and youngest of five children, Stevens — a 30-year education vet, teaching everywhere from the Bowery in New York to the Pico Rivera Unified School District — is understated, comforting and sincere. At 73, she is still the spark that ignited the flame. Stevens glows from inside.
After she retired in ’89, Stevens found her way to the Connection Project at Coeur d’Alene Elementary School in Venice, and started working with the 70 homeless children from the nearby Bible Tabernacle Shelter.
“It hit me that these families were coming and going and how often the children moved,” Stevens remembers. “At that time, the families were living in the church and in the little units and in the parking lot … in cars. They were sleeping in cars.”
Stevens had read a book in 1985, Jonathan Kozol’s Rachel and Her Children, a study of homeless families in New York City. “One night I was sitting there. I wrote on a napkin: ‘What could I do?’” In 1993, she founded School on Wheels. Now the organization has more than 800 homeless students across Southern California. She receives no state or federal government money.
“You know in school in the lower grades how you paste little happy faces on the chart if you did your homework?” she asks. “Well, they never had any at Coeur d’Alene, and the first graders would be horrified at the other first grader who didn’t have his homework. So I thought of backpacks, one-on-one tutoring and an 800 number. I went out and started talking to parents and people who work with the homeless. The people who got excited about it were the homeless families themselves.”
I wonder about the ones Stevens thinks about at night. The ones she can’t forget. “You can’t go around crying all day. You learn that fast. There were a couple kids who were sleeping on the street out here, on the cement ground with their families.” She points out the window. “They called my 800 number at 10 or 11 at night to say that they were so excited that their tutor was going to pick them up for a field trip. I thought, ‘My God, these kids are going back to sleep on that cement.’”
Volunteers are always needed at School on Wheels. “It takes so little to help a kid,” says Stevens. “We ask people to give one hour a week. You don’t have to be a teacher. You just have to be able to help a kid. To be there for them. We’re very grass roots. We’re very simple. We’re all about kids getting an education … that’s the only way for the future.”