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As homeless students suffer during pandemic, an Irvine resident steps in

Katherine Dang poses with her book "Pennington Panda."
Katherine Dang poses with her book “Pennington Panda.” The proceeds of the book will go toward helping homeless children.
(Courtesy of Anthony Bolden)

Homeless students have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Throughout the country, forced school closures cut off homeless kids’ access to shelter and food. As school turned virtual, homeless children also had to contend with poor internet access and lack of necessary resources.

Katherine Dang, 21, is hoping to help narrow the learning gap by providing tutoring services to homeless students in Orange County. Dang, who is from Irvine and attends UC Santa Barbara, started a university chapter of the nonprofit School on Wheels during the last spring quarter.

School on Wheels has been around for nearly three decades. It serves cities throughout Southern California, including in Orange County. The nonprofit provides one-on-one tutoring services to homeless children — from kindergarten through high school — who live in cars, motels, group homes, domestic violence and homeless shelters and with their families on the street.

“A lot of the kids that we work with have experienced a lot of trauma and a lot of movement in their lives,” said Sinéad Chilton, chief development and marketing officer with School on Wheels. “They might have lived in several places, they might have missed school because of that. And typically, they’re behind their peers when it comes to academics.”

Chilton said Dang has become a “celebrity” at the organization and is an “all around amazing person.”

“It’s fabulous that we have young volunteers like Katherine that want to make a difference in the life of a child experiencing homelessness,” Chilton said.

Dang and other members quickly recruited more than 100 tutors and raised $3,500 in funds for the nonprofit.

Dang’s chapter has focused on holding fundraisers to raise money for School on Wheels so the nonprofit can purchase laptops and other school supplies for students. Dang said they are currently holding a virtual school supply drive. The collected supplies will go toward local homeless and domestic abuse shelters. In addition to tutoring, the nonprofit also provides laptops, Chromebooks, tablets and access to hotspots.

“No one really knows about it at my school so I wanted to create an opportunity to publicize this volunteer opportunity,” Dang said. “I wanted to create a club in addition to recruiting volunteers to raise money for the organization because these kids are in need of other educational supplies other than tutoring.”

Dang also published a children’s book last month to donate the proceeds to School on Wheels. The book, “Pennington Panda,” is meant to inspire kids to take a break from video games and other electronics to stretch their creative muscles. The book describes Pennington Panda’s personal growth from being a lazy gamer to an inventor of a new type of biofuel.

An Irvine-based homeless nonprofit is partnering with Irvine Valley and Saddleback community colleges to help students experiencing food and housing insecurity.

It took Dang only a few months to write the book early last year. The most difficult part of the book was producing the images. At first, she water-colored all of the pictures, but that didn’t work out so well.

“It looked really terrible and I was just like, ‘Nobody is going to buy this,’” she said.

Eventually she got help from her brother’s girlfriend, Eiman Leung, who became the illustrator of the book. The next obstacle was figuring out how to publish the book. Dang reached out to a few publishers, but was met with “crickets.” So she had to figure out how to self-publish the book. After some research, she figured it out and the book is now available on Amazon.

Dang is hoping the book generates at least $5,000 in sales, all of which will go toward School on Wheels.

Dang is a biochemistry major who hopes to become a surgeon. She is also hoping to start her own nonprofit in Irvine and Santa Ana that will provide a literacy program for children in underserved areas.

“I noticed more often than not they’re always playing video games,” Dang said. “So I wanted to create a book for charitable purpose but also to inspire children to get off their devices and pursue greater things.”

According to the most recent certified data, there were 29,840 homeless children in Orange County in 2018 to 2019. Ian Hanigan, spokesman for the Orange County Department of Education, said last year’s numbers weren’t certified due to the pandemic. Hanigan did say that the current estimate was about 26,579 homeless students, but that number is not certified.

For the 2018 to 2019 numbers, 26,600 of them were living in shared housing. Almost 1,400 children were living in motels or hotels, 1,403 of them were in shelters and 457 of them were unsheltered.

“Katherine is just a testament to the willingness of our volunteers to create more advocacy and awareness around students experiencing homelessness,” said Charles Evans, executive director of School on Wheels. “Homeless students are often invisible. Anytime you hear homelessness being talked about, children experiencing homelessness are often left out, which just perpetuates the cycle of homelessness.”

Chilton said the nonprofit currently serves about 1,400 students, including more than 120 in Orange County. They are hoping to serve 2,000 by the end of the year.

Evans said the nonprofit’s strategy in Orange County is different because many of the children are living in motels, which makes it difficult to identify them. Typically, the nonprofit works with shelters to identify homeless students.

To help find students, School on Wheels partners with the Orange County Department of Education. The nonprofit also works with other organizations for motel outreach, which takes the form of backpack giveaways and passing out gifts during the holidays. However, the nonprofit tries to limit how much it just shows up at motels so they don’t encroach on people’s living situations.

“Out of respect and confidentiality, we try not to impede on their living situation and just show up at their motels,” Evans said. “So we have to really be strategic in terms of partnering with organizations that already have relationships with certain motels, whether that’s a food bank, a local pantry or school districts to see if we can identify those kids so we can provide services.”

Evans said that California Lodge Suites motel in Santa Ana houses so many homeless children that they allowed the nonprofit to set up a digital learning center in one of the motel rooms for the kids.

School on Wheels runs on donations from individuals and small foundations. It doesn’t receive any government funding.

“One of the reasons we do that is because we want to make sure that we can provide support for all kids experiencing homelessness,” Evans said. “We don’t want to exclude anybody. So that means if you’re an undocumented student, if you have special circumstances, as long as you’re experiencing homelessness we want to provide support. We feel that one of the ways we can do that is to make sure that we are privately funded so that we don’t leave any student out.”

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