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Agnes Stevens dies at 79; former nun and schoolteacher founded School on Wheels

Agnes Stevens obituary: Former nun and teacher founded School on Wheels to reach homeless children

Agnes Stevens, a former nun and schoolteacher who founded School on Wheels, a nonprofit group that helps homeless children stay in school by giving them tutors, backpacks and other support services, died Feb. 13 in Ventura. She was 79.

The cause was complications from Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease, said her brother, Bill Stevens.

Stevens formed School on Wheels in 1993 after 30 years of teaching elementary school. In two decades it has grown from a one-woman operation to a nationally recognized program with 1,800 volunteer tutors serving 3,000 homeless students a year throughout Southern California.

The tutors come from all walks of life and go wherever homeless children are, from shelters and skid row hotels to doughnut shops, libraries and foster homes. The program provides basic necessities, including bus tokens and classroom supplies, and helps with enrollment and the transferring of academic records. It also has an 800 phone number that enables students to stay in contact with the group despite being constantly uprooted.

One of the reasons Stevens created School on Wheels was to give homeless children some stability.

"These kids have lost not only one home, but a second home called school," she told The Times in 2001. "Kids like to be in school. They like to be where it's normal to be a kid."

She hatched the idea for her grass-roots effort after a trip to a library near closing time. The book she grabbed changed her life.

"Rachel and Her Children" was a study of homelessness in New York City by educator Jonathan Kozol. In the opening pages Kozol described the plight of the children, whose poverty and itinerancy made regular school attendance impossible.

"Many will wait for months before they are assigned to public school. Those who do get into school may find themselves embarrassed by the stigma that attaches to the 'dirty baby,' as the children of the homeless are described by hospitals and sometimes perceived by their schoolteachers," Kozol wrote in his 1988 book. "Whether so perceived or not, they will feel dirty. Many, because of overflowing sewage in their bathrooms, will be dirty and will bring the smell of destitution with them into class."

After Stevens finished the book, she vowed that she would find a homeless child to tutor.

After 22 years teaching in Pico Rivera schools, she retired in 1989 and began contacting homeless shelters looking for a child to help. She finally found a receptive partner in Coeur d'Alene Elementary School in Venice, which hired her to assess its homeless students' academic skills and provide remedial help. But Stevens found the constant turnover frustrating.

"She would work with kids for a week or two and then they would just disappear. That bothered her a lot," her brother recalled last week. "That played a role in her decision," he said, to start a program that could follow the children.

Friends helped raise about $600 to get School on Wheels off the ground. Stevens then dipped into her pension and income from private tutoring to cover monthly expenses of $1,000 for books, school supplies, toys and gas.

Twenty-two years later the organization has a staff of 22 and an annual budget of $1.6 million, according to spokeswoman Sinead Chilton. In 2001 it established a learning center on skid row. In 2008, after operating for 15 years out of Stevens' double-wide trailer home in Malibu, it moved into an office in Ventura.

One of five children of an accountant, Stevens was born in Boston on June 13, 1935. At 17 she joined the Maryknoll Sisters community and taught in its schools in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles until she left the order about 18 years later.

In 1971 she married a construction worker; they were divorced in the mid-1980s.

Besides her brother Bill, of Asbury Park, N.J., Stevens is survived by another brother, Edward, of Boston; and four stepchildren.

She won numerous honors for her work with homeless children, including the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child and the Minerva Award, created by former California First Lady Maria Shriver.

In 2010 Stevens retired as head of School on Wheels and drove across the country by herself to learn about the conditions for homeless children in every state. She spent nearly a year on the road, until her illness forced her to return home.

"It takes so little to help a kid," Stevens told LA Weekly several years ago. "We ask people to give one hour a week. … We're all about kids getting an education. That's the only way for the future."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

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