The Road to Reading


Nine-year-old Mistyanne Degele has spent the past year moving from one homeless shelter to another and from school to school.

Shortly after Misty, her mother, her stepfather and two siblings became homeless in October 1997, her grades dropped. Misty, who had been a good student, was doing poorly. Now she is repeating the third grade.

“It broke my heart to see [her grades],” said her mother, Christina Plymesser. But Misty’s low reading scores were even more disconcerting.

Then, two weeks ago, Plymesser received Misty’s latest report card, and her grades were much better. Plymesser attributes the improvement to the help her daughter has been getting from School on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that deploys about 120 volunteers to tutor children living in places such as homeless shelters, motels and cars.


Misty agreed that the program has helped her. When asked if she liked the one-on-one tutoring, she shyly replied with a nod, a faint “yes” and a smile.

The main goal of the reading program, which seeks to help children in kindergarten through high school, is for the youths to succeed at school despite the instability of their lives.

"[Reading is] the key to the whole thing,” said Nick Battaglino, program director for volunteers. “I don’t think there’s anything else you can do without reading.”

Through one-on-one tutoring and mentoring, the program has reached out to children such as Misty who have bounced from one temporary shelter to another, changing schools or frequently missing classes.

“These children have lost not only their home, but their second home,” said Agnes Stevens, executive director and founder of School on Wheels. “For every child, school is [a] second home.”

That’s what happened to Misty, who spent most of 1998 at the Sunlight Mission in Santa Monica, where her family ended up after her parents divorced and lost their Azusa home. She and her family recently moved to Family Place in Santa Monica, which offers transitional housing. Her mother and stepfather are searching for jobs, while the children adjust to their new surroundings. The tutor, Alicia Hibbert, 33, spent a recent Friday afternoon with Misty, reading “Raymond’s Best Summer” by Jean Rogers. Misty kept her eyes pinned to the book as Hibbert read. When Hibbert asked her if she wanted to try another chapter, Misty replied with an enthusiastic “yes.” Her mother and her tutor say that they have been stunned by Misty’s renewed interest in learning.

Hibbert has been spending at least an hour each week with Misty, helping her with her homework, reading with her and encouraging her to do well in school. Hibbert also takes Misty to the library regularly.

“Every child needs a person to talk to,” Hibbert said. “With everything [she has] been through, she just needs some extra attention.”


There are an estimated 220,000 homeless children in the state, according to the state Department of Social Services. Nearly 35,000 of them are in Los Angeles County. School officials said they did not know how many of those children are enrolled in Los Angeles public schools.

Stevens, a retired teacher, began her program in 1993 with two tutors in Santa Monica. Now, more than 100 volunteers tutor children living in almost 20 shelters from South-Central Los Angeles to Long Beach.

The program, which operates on an annual budget of nearly $75,000, relies on private donations and some celebrity pull--actress Jaclyn Smith is on its executive board--to attract volunteers and pay for the supplies the tutors use.

The volunteers can make life a little bit easier for the children and their families, Stevens said. Enrolling in school can be difficult for families without permanent addresses. Stevens instructs her volunteers to help the parents fill out paperwork and track down necessary records such as birth certificates and immunization files. The children also get free books so that even when their circumstances force them to miss school, they have access to the reading materials.


Volunteers, who include working and retired professionals, must go through an orientation session before being paired with a child. It is during that orientation that Stevens prepares them for what she calls the most difficult part of the job: losing track of the children when they change housing.

The program’s toll-free number, (800) 923-1100, has helped to decrease the number of children who have had to drop out of the program, Stevens said, because the children and their families can easily contact her.

Many of the volunteers have been determined to be consistent parts of the children’s lives. Hibbert has remained Misty’s tutor through her moves. She said her emotional commitment to Misty began as soon as she met her at the Sunlight Mission.

“There was this little girl with big circles under her eyes. Poor thing, she was so exhausted,” Hibbert said. “As soon as I saw her, [I saw] she was a special child.”


Lucille Peak has made a similar commitment to her student. Losing contact with 6-year-old Miguel would be painful, said Peak, a retired teacher from Whittier who has been volunteering for School on Wheels for two years.

Since October, she has tutored Miguel at Rio Hondo Family Housing in Norwalk. School authorities and his parents wondered why Miguel did not yet know the alphabet when he began first grade. It turned out that Miguel had problems with his hearing.

Peak taught Miguel the alphabet and used phonics to teach him to read.

“He was so thrilled when I read him books,” Peak said. “It just broke my heart to think that this little kid was lost.”


Miguel recently moved, and Peak said she hopes to keep working with him. “I’m not going to let him go,” she said.