“Hope is strong;
hope is optimism;
hope is self-reliant.”
|BIOGRAPHICAL VIDEO||2009 MINERVA AWARD WINNER SPEECH
The life of retired schoolteacher Agnes Stevens changed in 1993 when she read a book about homelessness in the United States. The staggering number of homeless children and the shockingly few who went to school appalled her. She began teaching homeless kids in a park in Santa Monica, encouraging them to stay in school, keep up their grades and participate in school activities.
From that individual decision to help-- to bring 30 years of classroom experience to America’s most forgotten children--School on Wheels was born.
Seventeen years later, Stevens and School on Wheels provide one-on-one tutoring for homeless kids who live in shelters, motels, group foster homes, cars and on the streets. More than 1,000 volunteer tutors from every profession and background help thousands of homeless children ages six to 18, throughout Southern California enroll in school and stay there.
Stevens, 74, calls the volunteers the “heart and soul” of School on Wheels. Together, they have created numerous success stories, turning young lives away from adversity to achievement. It’s rewarding and enriching for both tutor and child.
“Lay down differences and come together to bring hope to thousands of homeless students,” Stevens says.
Formerly a teacher in the New York Bowery, Chicago’s Chinatown and Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, Stevens now scours the seedier parts of Southern California looking for children. The neediest don’t come to her, she says. She has to go to them.
Without government support of any kind, School on Wheels also gives away at least 5000 backpacks loaded with school supplies, and some school uniforms. The children get help enrolling in school and with locating and filing school records as well as a toll-free phone number for around-the-clock School on Wheels’ support. When a child moves, School on Wheels follows them, offering stability in an otherwise unstable existence.
At many shelters, School on Wheels has created special learning rooms, with computers, books, drawing and writing materials, to give the children a quiet place to study.
"These kids didn't choose to be homeless and they're going nowhere if they can't read or write," Stevens told People in 2006.
Her 20 year fight on behalf of homeless children was recognized in 2008, when Stevens was one of three women who received the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, known as the children’s “Nobel Prize.” Winners are chosen by a global vote from a pool of 17 million children in 37,000 schools in 92 countries. It is the world’s most prestigious prize for defenders of children.
Whatever the victories, for Stevens and her volunteer tutors, the fight continues. These days with an economy in shambles, the need for her organization and its mission only grow daily.