Category: Student Success Stories

Sep 15

Homeless at the age of ten, former student shares his story

  • Graduation picture - alongside youngest sister Blanca, mom Bertha, and middle sister Susan.
  • Carlos with his wife Nancy and daughter, Azucena

Carlos Horacio Hernandez, a former student of School on Wheels, was plunged into homelessness at the age of ten.  A year earlier, he had arrived in the United States from Honduras with his mother, stepfather, and two sisters. His mother lost her job within six months of occupying a four bedroom house in Los Angeles. Carlos’s stepfather disappeared from their lives when things started getting tough for the family and was around only for moments at a time. With no help to pay bills, Carlos’s mother warned the children of the possibility of losing their home. After four months of not meeting payments, police officers posted a letter at their door telling them they only had two hours to evacuate. Thus, Carlos’s journey into homelessness began.  

At twelve years old, Carlos found himself in non-permanent housing situations time after time. Eventually they wound up at the Union Rescue Mission shelter which is where Carlos had his first encounter with a School on Wheels tutor.

Carlos remembered hearing about School on Wheels from others at the shelter. His mother received more information about the program and Carlos, along with his sisters, began going to sessions at The Midnight Mission. He was sixteen years old when he met his tutor John, and for Carlos, meeting with him was a safe space where he could talk and relax.

“I used tutoring as a space for me to be me, a positive environment…I would get my homework done right away, and the rest of the time, we just talked about stuff or we did something like play a quick game.”

Carlos recalls John as someone who showed genuine care for him and his sisters.  After each session, John walked with Carlos and his sisters to the train and waited with them until it arrived.

“The thing I remember the most was when we used to finish with the session. He could have gone home, could have done whatever, but he opted to walk with us.”

Even after the family left the shelter, Carlos and his sisters still attended tutoring sessions. To this day, Carlos appreciates John and has plans to reconnect with him in the near future.

Carlos and his family were placed in transitional housing after leaving the Union Rescue Misson. After Carlos witnessed a violent shooting just across the street from their living area, Carlos’s mother chose to move her family elsewhere.

The family endured a few more moves, but after approximately four years of instability, they were able to save enough money to live on their own permanently.

Carlos went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Central American Studies and in Psychology from Cal State Northridge. He then furthered his education by earning a master’s degree in Tourism, Hospitality, and Recreation Management from the same university. Now, his plan is to get his doctorate in Education.

Apr 4

Student-tutor bond helps Chynna succeed

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“Where you are right now does not mean you will be there forever.  I was homeless and even at my lowest point my tutor pushed me in a nice way to keep up with school and focus on my future.  When I got the first acceptance letter to college I felt indebted to Katie, I don’t think I could have done it without her.” – Chynna Lloyd.

Chynna has received numerous acceptance letters for college and wants to study law.  College will be a financial burden for Chynna; she is currently applying for scholarships, including The Catherine McAuley Scholarship at School on Wheels. She agreed to share her story with us at the urging of her tutor Katie Balderas. Chynna does not want people’s pity, but her tutor explained that by telling her story she could show what she has overcome, and with other people’s help, there is so much more she can do.

Chynna was in 5th grade and her family had been homeless for a couple of years. Moving from place to place, she attended seven different schools by the time School on Wheels and her tutor Katie met her in 2009.  

Life and school had never been easy.  Chynna was embarrassed at school because she didn’t have the same things as the other kids and was teased because her clothes were old and didn’t fit. She was angry that her family couldn’t afford new clothes, but she was more upset about the fact that she couldn’t go to slumber parties or leave the Domestic Violence Shelter to play jump rope outside with her school friends who lived nearby. The shelter looked like all the other apartment complexes except that it had gates around it. Chynna never told her friends in the neighborhood why.  She was smart and got good grades but had missed a lot of school and knew she needed help catching up, especially in math.  She was determined to go to college.  

At first, Katie and Chynna bonded over music, Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys and their love of books. With the help of her School on Wheels tutor Katie, Chynna began to focus on school instead of her homelessness. They also had a shared frustration with math; over the months and years, they worked on mastering math together!

“I helped Chynna with study skills because they were  a challenge for her. Especially living in a shelter. I helped her prepare for tests and gave her tips to stay organized. I also helped her to advocate for herself at school. I attended her parent teacher conferences and asked her teachers for advice.   By asking for help at school,  I modeled  positive behavior for Chynna and she started staying after school to ask her teachers for help when she needed to.”

Seven years later,  this fearless duo has weathered personal triumphs and tribulations (the death of Chynna’s father, the birth of Katie’s first child and Chynna’s family finally finding permanent housing). Their friendship is deep:

“Chynna is a resilient, strong, and smart young woman and it’s been one of the biggest joys of my life to know her.  She was one of the first people I told when I found out I was pregnant and she was one of the first people to meet my son after he was born.”

“Katie’s heart is really pure; she is a beautiful person – inside and out. She is the type of person we need on this earth.”

“Being a School on Wheels tutor has helped me better understand the true challenges of living in poverty. I have a stronger sense of how important education is to help families break the cycle of poverty, but at the same time I now have an awareness of how poverty can make it so much harder to focus on education.”

We asked Chynna if she had any advice for other students experiencing homelessness:

“If you need help and you can get it, School on Wheels cares and will actually help you with school. Like Katie, School on Wheels finds the good in everyone.  Take all the help you can get and don’t be prideful; tutors are expensive and this program provides them for free!  I think School on Wheels is a great program.  They found me the perfect tutor. “

Chynna  graduates in June.  She has numerous college acceptances and is planning a career in law.

Katie is a Policy Analyst and has a master’s degree in public health.

Apr 3

Diana Camarillo works hard to put herself through college

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Tens of thousands of children and youth have received support from School on Wheels.  Tutoring and mentoring relationships can last for years or just for months, but we never underestimate the difference our volunteers make in the lives of the students we serve.

Diana Camarillo recently visited our booth at a volunteer recruitment fair at Mount St Mary’s University in Los Angeles and  proceeded to tell us her story:

“I was homeless for about two years, living in three different shelters.  I was matched with a tutor when I was twelve because I struggled with language arts and composition.  My old backpack was really beat up. School on Wheels gave me a really beautiful new Jansport backpack.with  all new supplies inside. We  worked together for six months before my family moved into permanent housing.

At 16 I got a part-time job  because I knew then that I wanted something better.  I decided to work hard at school to get into college and get a degree, so I could have a career rather than just a job.

With financial aid and working two jobs I now have my own apartment and am finishing my first year at Mount St. Mary’s College.”

We contacted Diana’s tutor Carol Yee who was thrilled to know how well Diana was doing seven years later.

“I am so happy for Diana and remember her very well.  She was mature for her age and just delightful to work with.  I am very proud of her and not a bit surprised with her success.”

Diana has come a long way from where she started and she has this advice:

“I would say to any student experiencing homelessness to keep working hard at school.  When I was homeless I didn’t think college was an option. I didn’t try hard at school and didn’t get great grades, so I wasn’t able to get a full scholarship to college.  Now I have to work two jobs and finance myself.  But I am proud of my achievements and grateful to organizations like School on Wheels and Puente College Prep Program for helping me understand the importance of education.”

Apr 2

Former student Tatiana Obukhova finds success after a life-altering move

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Tatiana’s mom fell in love. She moved the family from Russia to California to be with her new husband in 2009.  The relationship quickly fell apart and became abusive. Tatiana, her mom and little brother ran away and that’s how the family found themselves homeless.  Tatiana said that they stayed at so many shelters during this time that she can’t remember how many.  Tatiana barely spoke English and her mom knew even less.  

School on Wheels met Tatiana’s family when she was in ninth grade, at a shelter in Ventura County. When Disha Patel saw her student for the first time, she was dressed in a most creative way.   A painted spider web adorned her face with open fingered gloves on her hands and a big flouncy skirt. This young girl with big beautiful eyes was shy but definitely interested in this new mentor in her life. When she spoke, she stuttered slightly and had an accent.  

They started to work right away as Disha was able to tutor her ninth grade student in advanced math. Tatiana was gifted in math and art but was not really interested in school.

“The best thing about having a School on Wheels tutor during this time was that Disha kept me motivated to study and complete my school work.  I thought our situation was too complicated, with no money or home. What was the point of school? I would never get to go to college. So why even try?”  

The unlikely duo met weekly and Disha encouraged Tatiana  to keep her options open and find out what she was interested in.  She even helped Tatiana get a summer scholarship from School on Wheels for an art program with the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) . Over the years they spent time researching colleges and visiting campuses. Disha kept reinforcing the importance of college and that it was possible.

In eleventh grade two important things happened: the family found a studio apartment, a home of their own and Tatiana attended a field trip with School on Wheels to UCLA.  She fell in love with the campus. She knew this is where she wanted to be.

Tatiana Obukhova  is now in her first year of college, studying Animation at the California College of the Arts.

My mom was also an important motivator for me to go to college.  She knew we could find a way to make it happen and I am proud of her as she is in college too.

I received several college scholarships, including one from School on Wheels. With grants and a part-time job, I am able to enjoy college life.  I miss my mom and brother; college can be frustrating, but I am beginning to have fun and feel at home.

“Complicated” is a word we hear a lot from our students when they describe their lives.

Homelessness is complicated, getting to college is complicated. Learning a new language is also complicated, but we think Tatiana’s achievements are simply brilliant.  Her tutor Disha had this to say: “Tatiana is a talented, capable young woman with great potential and I am excited to see what is in store for her in the near future.  It was a pleasure to be her mentor. As much as she learned from me, I learned from her too.”

Jun 28

School on Wheels Student accepted to University Southern California

Josephine Bailey-McLein

JosieWe met Josephine (Josie) when she was staying at the Union Rescue Mission (URM) on Skid Row in the fall of 2014. Josie graduated from University High School, Santa Monica, in June and will be heading to University Southern California to study Human Biology this fall. She received five scholarships, including one from School on Wheels, as well as a grant from USC.
Josie was a regular student at the School on Wheels Skid Row Learning Center. We caught up with her to ask her a few questions about her time as a School on Wheels student and how she coped with school while being in a homeless situation. Josie, her mom, and sister are still homeless, but they are now living in a longer term transitional living shelter and said it feels more like home.

Josie, what was it like living in the largest homeless shelter in Skid Row?

I liked that it gave me a place to sleep but it was a very stressful experience. There were lots of people there that you would not meet in everyday life who were from all walks of life.

What was your first impression of School on Wheels’ Learning Center?

When I first walked in, I noticed straight away how many kids were there, especially younger kids. It was loud and busy but warm and welcoming. All the staff and volunteer tutors were really friendly, and Miss Allison, Skid Row Learning Center (SRLC) instructor, is an amazing person who was very encouraging to me and made the center a nice environment to be in.

What difference did School on Wheels make for you during this time?

Being able to study at the SRLC was very important to me because I was able to access the internet. (No internet at the shelter) Most of my homework assignments were online so I needed to be able to get online. They were also great at providing me with school supplies.

Did you move schools a lot?

Yes, I went to three different high schools and eight schools in total. We moved to LA from Indiana but we only became homeless two years ago. I knew I always wanted to go to college. It is such a great feeling to know I am finally done with high school!

Who is your hero?

My mom is my hero because she always pushed me to do well at school. She said that, ‘Having an education was the only way you get anywhere and if I wanted to reach for something better, school was the way to do it!’

Do you have a message for any students out there going through the same experiences as you?

I would tell them not to worry about their living situation and to take advantage of the resources available, like School on Wheels, and the people they meet that are there to help them. I would also say that it is important to be around other kids the same age and try to have fun. It is easy to get stressed about your situation, but sometimes it’s good to forget and just be a kid!

Jun 20

High School Graduate Success Story

Brianna Audinett is a former student of School on Wheels. We met Brianna back in 2008 when she was chosen to represent School on Wheels students in Sweden at the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of a Child ceremony. Agnes Steven, Founder of School on Wheels, had been nominated for this award. This May Brianna graduated from high school, and we caught up with her to find out what she is up to and how School on Wheels has impacted her life.We asked Brianna these questions and here are her responses:

What was your best memory of representing School on Wheels at the prize ceremony in Sweden?

It was all wonderful. But I do remember the plane ride in particular because it was my first time on a plane. Spending time with Catherine, her husband Al, Agnes and Mr. Matt, who was one of my favorite tutors, was also wonderful. When I was in Sweden I felt so much love surrounded by people who loved me. I went back to Sweden six times as a jury member and made many great friends there. We stay in touch via Facebook and emails.

You spent a lot of time with Agnes; what is your best memory of her?

Agnes listened to me and took me seriously. She was candid and sweet and always asked, “What do you need me to do for you?’ Agnes was interested in my education and well-being, and that made me feel great. Knowing that someone, other than your mom, is invested in you is a good feeling. I am kinda indebted to Agnes because she affected me greatly, and I miss her.

What was it like to live in a homeless shelter?

The thing about living in a shelter that upset me the most was the atmosphere. It just destroyed me. Children have to grow up really fast when they are living in a shelter, and the shelter we were living in didn’t cater to children or our childhood. We had to be quiet and sit there and take it!

Do you have a message for our current students?

Yes, the one thing they must do is have hope and self-reliance. You kinda have to maintain your sanity and focus on the people that love you and uplift them too. When you do that, it reflects back… you have to have some degree of faith in yourself to pick yourself up.

Brianna is looking forward to attending college in the fall but she was unable to go to her first university choice due to financial constraints. Going to college, she says, will give her a chance of stability and she wants to be able to sustain herself academically. We know you will get there, Brianna.

Brianna and her mom have been living in permanent housing for a number of years.