On Wednesday morning, Cheryl Opper, founder and executive director of Schools on Wheels of Massachusetts, presented a lecture in Knapton Hall titled “Educating Students Impacted by Homelessness.”
Opper’s goal was to raise awareness of the children and families who struggle due to homelessness, and to encourage students at Wheaton to volunteer their time to tutor children impacted by homelessness in Massachusetts.
She began the lecture by stating that 48,000 children enrolled in Massachusetts public schools are currently homeless, and proceeded to show a video illustrating the purpose and mission of School on Wheels. The short film featured students from both Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University who have worked with School on Wheels in the past, and Opper explained that the program not only benefits the children in need of tutoring, but also allows college-level tutors to see a very real image of homelessness.
“My image of homelessness is typically in Boston, where I’ll get off the subway and see someone begging for money on the streets,” Opper said. “But we never see children on the streets. Family homelessness is a really hidden population. There are homeless children in our classrooms, and these really are the invisible children.”
Since 2004, School on Wheels has provided backpack supplies to over 1,200 students in Massachusetts—a majority of these supplies having come from Opper’s own home which she originally used as the donation center for the program. She emphasized that she believes homeless children “deserve the same opportunities to dream of a brighter future [as any other child].” But her vision didn’t stop with school supplies.
“Our goal is to help students have all the resources that any other student has in the classroom,” Opper said. “School on Wheels provides not only the materials for learning, but we provide caring adults and one-on-one mentoring every week. And you see that it helps the child build up their self-esteem. It helps them believe in possibilities.”
Cheryl Opper further stressed our judgments on homelessness as a society. “We often see someone who’s homeless and immediately think it’s due to drugs or alcohol,” she said. She interacted with the audience, a group of about 25 students, asking why they thought so many families were homeless. Opper then went on to reveal that most people are without a home simply due to lack of affordable housing as well as high unemployment rates.
As an example, she told the audience a story of a boy named Lorenz who she had worked with several years ago. Lorenz was a senior at Brockton High School when his family lost their home and was forced to move to a motel 50 miles away, as all of the shelters and motels in Brockton were filled. Lorenz was then forced to take a van to and from the high school daily, and could no longer participate in soccer or after school activities and clubs.
“He’s walking around the school and he’s feeling really depressed. On the outside he looked okay, but on the inside he told me he was dying and ready to give up,” Opper said. “But he knew school was the only way out of his situation.”
With the help of Schools on Wheels, he moved into the Mainspring Shelter for Men in Brockton and lived on his own, commuting to school daily without a car—sometimes even by foot. He was able to participate in clubs again and attend soccer practice.
“So now he starts to hold his head up a little bit higher,” Opper told the audience. “He ends up going to his senior class breakfast and getting the award for perfect attendance. He moved three times his senior year. But that’s resiliency.”
Lorenz went on to receive a full ride scholarship to Bridgewater State, and meets with his professors on a regular basis. Opper re-emphasized, “He told me, ‘My education is my only way out of my situation.’”
After a story the audience found inspiring, Cheryl Opper closed with a background on her education and how she began School on Wheels in Massachusetts. With a degree from Indiana State University in Early Childhood and Family Life, she taught kindergarten for years. Finally, when her daughter was in middle school, she tried to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
After reading an article in a magazine on School on Wheels, a program started in California by a woman named Agnes Stevens in 1993, Opper was inspired. She wanted to help children get what they needed, not just in terms of backpacks and school supplies, but in helping to fill in the layers of learning that homeless children need when they miss basic academics from such frequent moving.
Opper called Stevens, who ended up mentoring her in her journey to start her own segment of School on Wheels in Massachusetts. Opper collected large amounts of research, took courses at Stonehill on how to direct a nonprofit organization, gathered volunteers from her community, ran board meetings at her kitchen table, and fundraised to collect money, tutors, and donations for Massachusetts children and families. Ten years later, School on Wheels resides in a 4,000 square foot office space with four full-time staff members and $500,000.
“The responsibility of being a founder and director is huge,” said Opper. “But the reward is even larger. I feel like I could stand up here and tap dance and still not be able to show you how happy I am. I get to see kids every day, like Lorenz, reach their full potential. I get to see volunteers go into the shelter and really change lives. I get to see high school kids realize that life is about giving back.”
Opper concluded her lecture by challenging Wheaton students to find their passions by doing what they love and helping others. “Take whatever passion is inside of you, and know that it is your responsibility to shine that light,” she said. “And by you shining your light, you’ll help others find theirs.”