More than a tutor: Making a difference in the life of a student experiencing homelessness
Written by Lauren Rueger
Each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness. The Voices of Youth Count from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago also found that the lack of a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED) is the number one correlate for elevated risk of youth homelessness.
November is Homeless Youth Awareness month, a time to recognize and generate awareness of the challenges this vulnerable population faces through conversation. Our mission at HopSkipDrive is to create opportunity for all through mobility. We are dedicated to supporting youth experiencing homelessness, and we work with schools and government agencies to plan and iterate transportation for McKinney-Vento students. This month, we will be sharing stories of individuals making a difference in the lives of youth experiencing homelessness.
This week we spoke with Patty Miller; Patty works at HopSkipDrive, and during her free time volunteers for School on Wheels, an organization that provides tutoring services for youth experiencing homelessness. Patty has been a volunteer for two and a half years, and has been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to tutor the same student since she started with the organization. Learn more about why that is significant, and more about her experience in our conversation below:
How did you become involved with School on Wheels?
After graduating from college, I wanted to become more involved in my community. I was working at HopSkipDrive at the time, and had learned a lot about youth experiencing homelessness through the work we do. I was motivated to continue supporting this vulnerable population outside of work, and when I came across School on Wheels I knew it would be a good fit.
Tell us about your experience volunteering at School on Wheels.
It’s been life-changing. When I first applied to become a tutor, I wasn’t expecting to learn everything I have and to feel so connected to the student I tutor. In fact, we were told at the beginning to be prepared for students to transition in and out of our care frequently due to their changing housing circumstances.
Two and a half years later, I’ve been tutoring the same student and it’s been a really wonderful experience for me and for the student. I’ve become more than a tutor, I find myself being a mentor and friend.
I meet with the student once a week for an hour; we work on his classwork and I help to make sure he’s staying on track. But, it’s become so much more than that. I’ve grown to know him, his interests, his mother, their home life, his friends, and his goals for the future. He is always so proud to show me what he has done at school and is overjoyed to share his experiences with me each week.
My experience tutoring him has inspired me to do all that I can to help him continue his education, help him persevere through challenges he encounters, and remain a constant in his life that he can rely on.
What is something you have learned about youth experiencing homelessness during your time as a volunteer?
I have learned so much. It has shown me, on a deeper level, the impacts homelessness has on an individual’s trajectory, on their ability to grow, develop and succeed in a healthy and productive way.
I’ve learned through this particular student’s experience that living in a shelter presents more challenges then what we might assume or see at surface level; for example finding a quiet place to focus and do school work is not an option for kids living in a shelter. This is a small, but very important thing many of us might take for granted, and something the student I work with faces every day.
The experience has also taught me how challenging the pathway to opportunity and success can be for so many youth experiencing homelessness. There is a significant lack of resources, consistency, and a stable foundation to build upon, it sets them up to face major challenges each day. It is not conducive to learning and growing in a healthy way; you’re stifled. And yet, the student I work with, and so many other children experiencing homelessness show up, want to succeed, and want to do their best. It’s inspiring.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your time volunteering?
Becoming more than a tutor; becoming a mentor and friend.
When I first started this experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to tutor and support kids. Beyond that, everything along the way has been such a joy, but it has also been a sobering experience; one that has led me to become passionate about supporting this vulnerable population and specifically, being a person of consistency and value for the student I work with. In many ways, we’ve established a life-long bond, one that will extend beyond tutoring. I know I’ll be able to positively impact his life and hopefully help guide him to achieve his goals and set forth on a path of strength.
At one point in the school year last year, he mentioned he was interested in robotics. He wanted to go to robotics camp, but sadly knew it wasn’t something he could do. I partnered with his mother and HopSkipDrive to make sure he could attend the camp and had a mode of transportation to get him there. I’ll always remember that experience because of the joy it brought to him, and how I saw him light up and engage in something he loved. I’ve also been able to take that interest he has in robotics and apply it to his school work, which has been exciting to watch grow and improve.
Keeping this student moving in the right direction, focused on education and helping him see how bright his future is, how smart and capable he is has been rewarding, and brings me back to continue the work we’re doing together.