Rolling Forward

How a locally based nonprofit and its executive director aim to break the cycle of homelessness.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Michael Moore

More than two million children in the United States are homeless. Providing these individuals and their families with food, shelter, and some degree of safety is a challenging enough task, and, sadly, in the face of more pressing needs, education is often the least of anyone*s worries. It may be an understandable trade-off, but it*s a tragic one; education is tremendously important for the empowerment and future success of all kids, but especially homeless ones. That*s where School on Wheels and its executive director, Catherine Meek, come in.

The nonprofit organization does for learning what homeless shelters do for the basic necessities. It provides tutoring, backpacks, school supplies, assistance with school enrollment, and more〞anything to help fill the gaps in education that result from not having a permanent, stable living situation. As Meek explains, homelessness creates several barriers between children and their opportunity to learn. ※The constant fear and anxiety〞it*s very detrimental to young brains. The constant moving, not having friends. It*s very difficult for a child to focus on school if they are hungry or living in a shelter.§ Moving frequently means switching schools (sometimes three or four times a year), and some parents, not knowing how long they*ll stay or where they*ll end up next, may not even bother enrolling their children. Falling further and further behind, year after year, is all too common.

School on Wheels was founded by Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher, and originally served students in downtown Los Angeles, which has one of the highest concentrations of homeless children in the United States. Meek came on as a volunteer tutor in 1999. ※I was looking to do something that wouldn*t take up too much time,§ the former entrepreneur remembers. ※There was a PSA on television that said something about &one hour a week could change a life.* I*d always been interested in education and homelessness, so it was the perfect fit.§

Meek understands firsthand the challenges of the impoverished. ※I grew up very poor,§ she says of her childhood in Scotland. ※I lived in a community where everyone was poor. There was no indoor plumbing; we shared a lavatory with other families. I know the fear and dread that can come over you.§ Her mother, Catherine McAuley, whom Meek describes as a very intelligent woman, had to leave school at age 14. McAuley insisted that her own children study and work hard in school, in the hope that they could achieve a better life. ※Education for her was always the way out,§ Meek recalls. McAuley*s efforts paid off: all of her children went on to college, and all built successful lives. This helped shape Meek*s own perspective. ※I truly believe education is one way for a lot of students to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.§

Meek*s personal experience with poverty inspired her to help others, even after emigrating to Los Angeles and founding a successful consulting company. Meek and Associates donated ten percent of its profits to homeless charities, and the entrepreneur volunteered in various women*s centers near her offices in downtown Los Angeles. But getting involved with School on Wheels was a life-changing experience.

She started out as a tutor, helping a six-year-old homeless boy named John. Meek recalls an overwhelming sense of chaos when she walked into the shelter to meet with him. ※I had never been in a homeless center. It was scary. Lots of noise. Lots of kids. People who didn*t know what they were doing. There was no quiet spot.§ That encouraged her to get involved in a more integral way, and Meek worked closely with Stevens for several years, helping to grow the program and expand beyond Los Angeles. By 2001, she had moved to Ojai and started establishing School on Wheels in Ventura County; the nonprofit*s administrative office was founded around 2004 in downtown Ventura. Eventually, Meek retired from her consulting firm to work full time for School on Wheels, and was elected executive director in 2009.

Under Meek*s guidance, the nonprofit has grown dramatically. Once focused exclusively on Los Angeles County, the program now reaches throughout six counties in Southern California, helping homeless students from Santa Barbara to Long Beach. There were just a few hundred volunteers in 1999; today over 1800 tutors serve more than 3000 children. The Skid Row Learning Center in downtown LA opened in 2001 and has expanded through the years, most recently with the addition of a Digital Learning Center this past March. The B.U.S. (Believe, Understand, Succeed) Program helps junior high and high school students make a plan for post-graduation, including college〞and yes, many do go on to university. To help them get there, and to honor her mother*s belief in education, Meek established the Catherine McAuley Scholarship in 2004.

And she*s done it all without taking so much as a dime in salary. ※I provide my services pro bono,§ Meek admits. ※I do get compensation; just not in dollars and cents. I*m fortunate that I can do that.§ With a large mission always needing more and more funding, she simply didn*t see where School on Wheels had the money to pay her. Helping students succeed and break out of poverty and homelessness is more than enough compensation for Meek. ※I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I get rewarded every single day.§

The assistance School on Wheels provides won*t become unnecessary anytime soon. Meek estimates that there are 350,000 homeless students just in the districts the nonprofit serves. And it frustrates the executive director that there isn*t more being done at the institutional level. ※This is a national crisis〞and we aren*t talking about that. If you look at the statistics, you find that homeless students have lower achievement in reading and math, are four times more likely to drop out, and nine times more likely to repeat a grade. Around 25 percent don*t even go to school consistently. They keep falling further and further behind. ’ If we as a society don*t try to do something about that, then who are we?§

Meek will continue to advocate for greater awareness and more services for the homeless students School on Wheels tries to help〞and, more importantly, the thousands more they can*t reach. In the meantime, she continues to be the change she wishes to see in the world. No matter what else befalls these kids, Meek intends to make sure School on Wheels is always there for them. As she puts it, "We provide stability in an unstable life.”

School on Wheels is the only organization in Southern California dedicated exclusively to the educational needs of homeless students. For volunteer opportunities and more information, log on to or call 805.641.1678.

Piles of books in the office.

Executive Director Catherine Meek, seen here at her home in Ojai, was School on Wheels’ first volunteer in Skid Row and has helped grow the organization from a small, local nonprofit to one that works with over 1,800 volunteers tutoring 3,100 students in six counties. She was named one of 10 Women of Worth in the U.S. in 2012 and has received the President’s Volunteer Service Award at the Gold Level for the past five years.

Peace symbol at Meeks' home in Ojai.


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