At a time when family homelessness continues to soar, the nonprofit organization, School on Wheels of Massachusetts (SOWMA) is being honored for successfully addressing the root causes of poverty, one student at a time.
On February 13, School on Wheels of Massachusetts will be recognized by Citizens Bank and New England Cable News (NECN) as their 2014 Champion in Action® for Youth Programming. SOWMA was selected from 150 applicants for providing customized support services and an academic lifeline for youth impacted by homelessness.
SOWMA is the only non-profit organization in the state whose primary focus is helping students break the cycle of homelessness through a quality education. Executive Director Cheryl Opper founded SOWMA out of her home in 2004 after reading a magazine article about the program’s work with students in California. The first year, SOWMA served 10 children a week at two family shelters with an annual budget totaling less than the price of a compact car. Today, SOWMA serves over 200 students a year in schools, shelters and motels in Brockton, New Bedford, Norwell, and Stoughton and its annual budget totals $500,000.
A decade of success
Over the past 10 years, SOWMA’s customized one-on-one tutoring and mentoring for students in grades K-12 have helped to improve the self-esteem and academic skills of more than 1,500 children experiencing homelessness. SOWMA’s High School Plus program has helped 35 students graduate from high school and enroll in colleges such as Brandeis University, Tufts University, Bridgewater State University, UMass Boston, Massasoit Community College, and many others.
One of the organization’s most dramatic successes is 19-year-old Marc-Daniel Paul. The Suffolk University sophomore was a middle school student living in a shelter in Middleboro, MA, with his parents and four siblings when he first connected with the organization. Paul threw himself into SOWMA’s academic services and support while living at the shelter and later joined the High School Plus program.
Today, the teenager is a shining example of how a quality education and one-on-one support can alter the future of a student impacted by homelessness. With guidance from High School Plus, Paul was chosen to participate in the highly selective Bank of America Student Leaders® Program and visited the U.S. Capitol as a senior at Brockton High School. This past summer, the teenager served as an intern in the office of State Sen. Mark Montigny, and co-authored a successful amendment to the State Budget which reduces the cost of health insurance for college students covered by MassHealth. Now majoring in political science, Paul says he would never have received access to these and other opportunities without SOWMA’s support. In contrast, the National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that only one in four homeless teens will graduate high school putting them at extreme risk to repeat the cycle of homelessness as an adult. In contrast, SOWMA high school students have a 94% graduation rate and go onto college.
Lorenz Marcellus and others like him are beating the odds of repeating the cycle of homelessness with SOWMA’s help. Marcellus became homeless his senior year at Brockton High School and was traveling 50 miles to and from school each day while living in a motel room in Somerset with eight of his family members and sleeping on the floor each night. He wanted to be closer to his school so he left his family in Somerset and moved into the MainSpring shelter in Brockton which serves men, most three times Marcellus’s age. With SOWMA’s help, Marcellus applied to college, completed his financial aid forms, and achieved good grades his senior year, despite the challenges he faced having no place to call home.
Remarkably, Marcellus graduated from Brockton High School and received an award for perfect attendance, despite moving three times in one year. After graduation he enrolled at Massasoit Community College and made the Dean’s list before being accepted to Bridgewater State University with a full ride scholarship this year.
It is the academic achievements of determined students like these young men that demonstrate the difference a quality education can make, says Opper. “Homeless youth are invisible students in our classrooms, at risk for repeating the cycle of poverty. SOWMA creates a community of volunteer support that serves as an educational safety net to help children move beyond homelessness, one student at a time,” she explains.
As a 2014 Champion in Action® winner, SOWMA will receive a $35,000 award, increased volunteer support, professional mentoring, marketing, publicity, and other many other benefits. As a result, the organization will be able to expand its efforts to strengthen academic support services for more students, heighten awareness about family homelessness in Massachusetts, and provide opportunities for volunteers to make a meaningful difference in their communities.
ABOUT SCHOOL ON WHEELS OF MASSACHUSETTS
School on Wheels of Massachusetts (SOWMA) is the only nonprofit organization in Massachusetts providing customized one-on-one tutoring, backpacks, school supplies, books, college assistance, educational advocacy, and parent school support for children impacted by homelessness in multiple locations in Southeastern MA. SOWMA is dedicated to providing students with the tools they need for achieving his or her full potential despite having no place to call home. Learn more about SOWMA and its life-changing work at www.sowma.org or phone 508-587-9091 to learn more about volunteer opportunities and how you can change a child’s life.