Only about one-fourth of homeless teenagers in the United States will graduate high school, but one Massachusetts non-profit is helping break that cycle.
Ana Lobo, a native of Cape Verde, came to the U.S. at age 15, pregnant, and speaking little English. Once at risk of dropping out, she not only has her high school diploma but also an Associate's Degree and is working toward her Bachelor's. She accomplished all of that as a homeless single mother.
Ana and her 9-year-old daughter are among more than 20,000 people in Massachusetts experiencing homelessness, according to federal statistics. It's a crisis that moved Cheryl Opper into action.
"There's a lot of people that want to help fix things, but you need somebody to kind of rally the troops, and that's what i did," said Opper.
Opper founded School on Wheels Massachusetts in 2004, at first working out of her home in Easton. The non-profit organization, now based in East Bridgewater, provides support from kindergarten all the way through college with one-on-one tutoring for children affected by homelessness. Every week, the tutor goes to the student, whether it be a shelter or a motel, and the goal is simple: help that child focus on school.
Ana has worked with her tutor, Beth Young, for the past eight years.
"I just admire her perseverance, her work ethic," said Beth.
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"Beth, she encourages me a lot going to school," Ana said. "I always wanted to go to college but I didn't think it was possible."
"What I see is most important for our kids is that they have to have somebody that believes in them, somebody who says, 'I care about you and I know you can do it and I'm going to help support you,'" Opper told NECN.
This is a personal mission for Opper.
"I would have never imagined that I'd be at eight college graduations and watching them go across the stage and pumping their fist and saying, 'I did it,'" she said.
For Ana, it's not just about herself. She wants to give her daughter a bright future, also through School on Wheels. She aims to pay it forward by becoming a school counselor, with Beth by her side.
"She's like a family to me now," said Ana. "And I know without her, I wouldn't be able to be here."
Tutoring is one part of the program. The other part is the backpacks. Last year, School on Wheels Massachusetts gave out 1,200. This year, they expect to get 1,600. All the material is donated and the backpacks are stuffed by volunteers.
School on Wheels is always looking for community volunteers and tutors for its program sites. The commitment is one hour a week. If you're interested in donating your time, visit sowma.org.