Tutors help homeless children succeed

Working at a table crowded with binders and textbooks, Glendale resident Nancy Stein is leading two children through their homework exercises.

"Is that how you spell 'remember?'" she asks. "Sound it out. You are missing some letters."

It is a scene played out each evening in households across the country. But the children, siblings Jenny and Danny Barajas, 9 and 12 years old, respectively, are not Stein's own. And the table is not in the family kitchen, but in the activity room at PATH Achieve, a homeless shelter in south Glendale.

Stein, a volunteer with the nonprofit organization School on Wheels, works to ensure that her students stay on track despite the instability of homeless life. School on Wheels provides a variety of services, including free school supplies, uniforms, school enrollment and parent counseling.

Its primary mission, however, is to foster academic success with one-on-one tutoring. Hundreds of School on Wheels volunteers work at sites across Southern California, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

There are more than 35,000 homeless youth enrolled in Los Angeles County schools, according to the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. Families with young children now account for 40% of the nation's homeless population.

Homeless children face myriad challenges, said Natasha Bayus, School on Wheels regional coordinator for Burbank and Glendale, including limited access to nutritious food and hygiene products. And they are sometimes plagued by social stigma, as well as frequent moves.

"Each time a student moves, they are set back three to four months," Bayus said. "If they move multiple times in a year, they can be behind at least a year of school. They might be working on things like algebra but lacking basic addition and subtraction [skills]."

Parents are typically consumed trying to find steady work and places to live, Bayus said, leaving them little time to go over homework. And in some cases they themselves may be uneducated.

"A lot of the parents might not have graduated high school themselves," Bayus said. "So if the kid is in high school and is working on some advanced problems, it is even harder for those parents to handle those things."

School on Wheels volunteers are seeing more families forced into homelessness due to job loss, eviction and foreclosure, Bayus said. Jenny and Danny's mother, Maria Cardenas, said her family was evicted from their Sun Valley apartment last spring after a dispute with their landlord.

Terrified that her children would be removed from her custody, she tried to hide the family's circumstances, Cardenas said. Each night they parked their car at Sun Valley Park. For four months, the children slept in the vehicle, while their mother slept next to it on the curb. They used the park's pool facilities to bathe.

Eventually, Cardenas was approached by a Los Angeles police officer, who encouraged her to go to a shelter. She is determined to keep her family together, Cardenas said, and with the help of the School on Wheels tutors, her children remain on track at school.

"They are excellent with them, especially [my son]," Cardenas said.

Roberta Lara, a paralegal at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and a School on Wheels volunteer, said she communicates directly with a client's teacher in order to identify weaknesses, such as reading. Her most recent student made noticeable progress, she said.

"I try to talk to them and make them feel as comfortable as possible," Lara said. "They really open up to me, and I enjoy that."

Watching children not only survive homelessness, but actually thrive, is incredible, Stein said. She has had tutoring relationships that lasted for several years, and others that lasted just a few weeks.

"You don't really know how much effect you had on them," Stein said. "You just hope and pray that somehow you helped them."

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