TPC spoke with Cheryl Opper, the Executive Director of School on Wheels of Massachusetts (SOWMA). SOWMA, a second-year grantee of TPC, provides customized academic support services and mentoring for students impacted by homelessness, from kindergarten through college.

Cheryl speaking at TPCs “Meet the Grantees” event.

Q. Tell us about your organization. Why is what SOWMA does so important?

A. Students experiencing homelessness move an average of three to five times each year and often fall behind in school. They miss layers of learning due to the trauma and upheaval caused by homelessness. SOWMA provides the stability and anchor around education during these times of chaos. SOWMA also helps level the educational playing field for students by providing backpacks, school supplies, tutoring, college assistance, and mentoring so that the students are able to reach their full potential. 

Q. What has the relationship with TPC allowed SOWMA to do?

A. Over the past two years, TPC has helped us fund two programs. The first is the High School Plus Program, which focuses on helping students stay in school, graduate, and move on to post-secondary education. TPC also provided funds to launch the College Mentoring Program which provides one-on-one mentoring to help students be successful in school, explore internships, job shadowing, and job networking. This program is designed to help students stay in school, graduate, and get jobs so they can climb out of the poverty cycle

In addition, TPC provided funding this year for SOWMA to hire Third Sector New England, a Boston-based resource center for non-profit organizations, to help us develop a two- year Strategic Plan. Our plan is focused on financial sustainability, growth and replication models, and leadership development and transition.

Q. What’s unique about these programs?

SOWMA participant and mentor.

A. The key factor is that we stay with students as they move around between shelters and housing. As students move, SOWMA moves with them. SOWMA is with our students through their whole academic career, with no time limits on how long we provide them with support.

We try very hard to personalize our support: backpacks are customized for students by grade, and tutoring is customized by grade to focus on closing learning gaps. And unlike other programs, our sole focus is on students who are impacted by homelessness, which helps us understand the challenges they face.

Q. Can you tell us about a student that you’ve worked with who’s benefitted from the program?

A. Lorenz is one of our students. He started with us when he was a senior at Brockton High School. His guidance counselor referred him to SOWMA. At the time he had moved three times in his senior year, from one motel to another motel (50 miles away) to a shelter. Despite that, he received an award for perfect attendance! He went on to attend Massasoit College, making the Dean’s List, being tutored and mentored by our program, and then won a full scholarship from Bridgewater State University Scholars that includes room and board. He’s now studying film and communications, and he won a college film festival and is now part of a national competition. He’ll graduate this month, and I’ll be attending, after which he’ll move to California for a job opportunity. As he said, “My education is the only thing I can control while homeless,” he told us that he “felt lost and drowning,” and he was amazed that SOWMA kept showing up and cared about him and his education. This is what motivates us; our kids and their success, watching them soar against all odds, witnessing their resiliency, their positive attitudes, and their desire to give back.

Q. If TPC members want to do more, what does SOWMA need?

A. Right now, we’re planning to pack 2,500 K-12 backpacks. To do that, we’ll need donations of new backpacks, school supplies, and also volunteers (individuals, families, or groups) to help us pack the backpacks and put everything together. Click here to go to SOMWA’s Wish List on Amazon, through which you can buy backpacks and school supplies to be sent to them directly.

We need new dorm supplies; we have 40 kids we support who will be in college this fall, and 9 of them are starting college for the first time. We always need volunteer tutors who can commit at least one hour a week, at a consistent time. And we’re always looking for college mentors, caring adults to meet with students on campus about once a month and check-in with them regularly.