The Interview with Kathleen Graham

On a cold December morning, TPC liaisons Leslie Levenson and Mary Ryan chatted with Kathleen Graham, Executive Director of School on Wheels Massachusetts (SOWMA). Founded in 2004, SOWMA supports the academic, social and emotional growth of students impacted by homelessness. Kathleen became Executive Director this past June, succeeding SOWMA’s founder, Cheryl Opper.

What inspired you to join School on Wheels?

I have always been passionate about helping children, especially those who need us most…and who needs us more than a child experiencing homelessness? I’ve dedicated my career to working in youth services and most recently spent 12 years at the Boys and Girls Club of Marshfield, where I started as a Program Director and eventually became Executive Director. I was drawn to the grassroots beginnings of School on Wheels and was excited to join as Executive Director in June 2018 and even more excited to lead its growth and expansion.

What are your goals for the organization?

Our vision is to give all students affected by homelessness the support necessary to achieve a bright and productive future. We have two program models: 1) shelter-based tutoring; and 2) tutoring at Learning Centers. Children experiencing homelessness are constantly moving; we may begin working with a child who is living in one of the shelters we serve, but after that initial three to six months of contact, we may lose touch if a child transitions into housing or moves to another shelter. One way we can maintain relationships with these young people who need consistency in their lives is to continue services at a Learning Center. Our Learning Centers are located at YMCAs, local credit unions, and other places that we can transport children to. With continuation of services, our relationship with students can last five to seven years regardless of where they are living. Our goal is to have Learning Centers all across Massachusetts, because there are no other 1:1 mentoring/tutoring programs like ours in the state.

Describe a current initiative that you feel is particularly exciting.

We now have new laptops and iPads at our sites that enable the students to access the programs and websites they need to complete homework assignments. We have created a STEM curriculum enrichment program. Kids are very excited about doing two to three STEM experiments each month in addition to their regular homework assignments. Kids are thrilled to make “witches brew” or graph the colors of M&Ms to learn about science.

Please share a story that exemplifies SOWMA’s impact on children.

There are so many ways we help kids: 1:1 tutoring to 280 students a week in grades K-12 at 18 program sites; mentoring 26 high school students and 57 college students; and providing backpacks to over 3,000 children each year. When we ask students to tell us about their tutors and mentors, they describe them as “my best friend,” “family,” and “I love them.” Kids value and need a consistent advocate in their lives. Navigating the MA Dept of Education can be a challenging process and homeless families are often unaware of their rights. Recently SOWMA’s Education Director advocated for a mother of three children with learning challenges by attending all IEP meetings, constantly communicating with teachers, and even meeting with the school’s superintendent. We build valuable relationships that last for years.

How have you used TPC’s funds?

This funding cycle supported our engagement with Third Sector New England to assist in our leadership transition, board development, and strategic planning. TPC also helped strengthen our programs by helping us purchase the laptops and iPads used for STEM enrichment.

Are there ways TPC members could get involved with SOWMA?

I hope members attend the February 6 Dialogue where I will be present to highlight the depth of our work.

We are always looking for volunteers to mentor or tutor our students. There is a two-hour initial training session prior to starting a one afternoon per week commitment at our sites in Brockton, Attleboro, Middleboro, Taunton, Stoughton, Norwell, Plymouth, Dorchester, New Bedford, Fall River, and Weymouth.

We are currently looking for Board members; we meet four times per year.

We are planning our annual Outrunning Homelessness family run/walk on May 4. We are looking for committee members and day-of volunteers for this event held in Easton, MA.