Just One Hour

Last November I volunteered to tutor a homeless child for one hour a week through a program called Schools on Wheels. `One hour a week?’ I thought. I can easily do that.

School on Wheels

At the volunteer orientation I learned all sorts of disheartening facts. There are 1.5 million homeless people in the US — 290,000 of them live in California and 14,000  live in my city of Los Angeles, which has the largest concentration of homeless people in the country. I confess that I harbored the stereotype that your typical homeless person is a middle-aged male with alcohol, drug and psychiatric problems, but it turns out that the average age of a homeless person in the US is about 9 years old. Single mothers and their children are the people you’re most likely to find living on the streets and in cars, rundown motels and shelters.

Agnes StevensThese kids often change schools three or four times a year and each time they do, they usually lose their friends and fall behind in their education. Most don’t tell their friends or teachers that they’re homeless. So they have problems at school and their teachers don’t know why. They move away suddenly, leaving friends who are angry and hurt, because they feel rejected. It’s no surprise that the school dropout rate of homeless children is high, which is why Agnes Stevens, a retired teacher, started School on Wheels 17 years ago.

At the orientation we were told that the kids often show up to the tutoring sessions tired, hungry, sick, and burdened by the stresses of adult problems, including taking care of their parents and siblings. They often feel abandoned and neglected and are sometimes abused. If they’re in shelters they can wake up at 5 or 6am, wait to shower, often get their few belongings stolen, and are sometimes exposed to unsafe situations. They leave to go to school and the shelters don’t let people back in until the late afternoon. When they return, there’s little to no privacy and it’s noisy and hard to study. The tutor is often the only adult in their lives who pays attention to them. Many volunteers end up tutoring the same child for years.

Part of what originally appealed to me about this program was that I was only required to volunteer one hour a week. But by the end of the orientation I realized that I was signing up for one child, not one hour.

I was assigned to a 6 year old boy who lives in a battered women’s shelter. Who was this stranger I was committing to? Would I like him?

One sunny December afternoon, I drove to the shelter where the boy lives. I got buzzed into the facility and met my volunteer coordinator. The shelter was threadbare, but clean and well-run by friendly people. There was even a small children’s room where I met the boy Victor (not his real name). He breezed in and joined us adults seated at the table who were filling out paperwork. I had been given a list of questions to ask him, which were designed to help us to get to know each other. But there was no need for me to ask him what his favorite color was, or whether he preferred chocolate or peanut butter. We connected immediately and it took me all of a nanosecond to recognize that he was one bright little kid.

My volunteer coordinator left the room and by the time he returned, ten minutes later, Victor and I were already deeply engaged in doing his homework, which he informed me had to be done by the next day.

The School on Wheels coordinator presented Victor with a new backpack full of fresh school supplies. Victor looked longingly at his new trove of treasure.

“Do you want to take a break and look at what you got?” I asked.

But he would not be deterred. “I want to finish my homework first.”

The volunteer coordinator presented Victor with an eraser. The boy flipped it playfully in his palm. Suppressing a smile, he scrunched his brows, and asked, “Do I have to pay you for this?”

“No,” the coordinator said kindly, suppressing his own smile, “It’s yours. You can pay me back after you graduate from college.”

“I don’t know,” Victor perked up, “after college I’m going to make a lot of money and I’m gonna want to keep it all.”

I was blown away. What 6 year old boy refuses the offer to examine new presents until he finishes his homework? My guess is that the college matriculation rate of a kid in his position is rather low. Yet Victor already sees himself graduating from college; he’s bright, disciplined and determined. My task, I thought, is not going to be how to help this kid catch up, but how to keep him academically challenged in an unchallenging school environment.

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