Nonprofit Lifts Mass. Homeless Kids In School

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Statistics show that families with children are one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population.

In fact, the average age of the Massachusetts homeless population is 8 years old.

The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that only 1 in 4 homeless teenagers will graduate from high school. But among those graduating Friday from a college — the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth — is a young woman who beat the odds, thanks in part to a Massachusetts nonprofit working to help homeless kids keep up in school.

From 'Turmoil' To Success

Twenty-two-year-old Kerenne Paul knows what it's like to be uprooted and homeless.

Kerenne Paul, 22, who's originally from Haiti, graduates from UMass Dartmouth Friday. (Delores Handy/WBUR)
Kerenne Paul, 22, who's originally from Haiti, graduates from UMass Dartmouth Friday. (Delores Handy/WBUR)

Her family came to the United States in 2006 with thousands of other refugees, fleeing violence in Haiti.

"With the turmoil that was going on — my dad was kidnapped — after that we didn't feel safe to live in the country," Paul says.

The family arrived in Florida, lived there until 2009, then moved to Massachusetts, primarily because of this state’s reputation for strong schools.

Paul enrolled at Brockton High School, while she and her family were sheltered at a series of motels in the southeastern portion of the state.

"Living in a motel was really, we really did not know how long it would last," she says. "It was really hard because I was going to Brockton High at the time. And I was always worried about having to move to a city that was too far for me to commute to Brockton High.

"But thankfully my parents were really adamant about school and us getting a really good education."

Aside from her parents, Paul also received support from a group that's trying to help homeless children keep up in school. It's called School on Wheels of Massachusetts.

"We go into the children's and families' temporary homes — which are motels, shelters — and kind of fill in the layers that they are missing," says Cheryl Opper, a former teacher who created the tutoring and mentoring program in 2004.

All Resources Offered

It's Monday evening at the Brockton Y — one of 12 sites in southeastern Massachusetts where School on Wheels provides academic support for children impacted by homelessness.

Fourth-grader Caden has his eye on grad school -- already. (Delores Handy/WBUR)
Fourth-grader Caden has his eye on grad school -- already. (Delores Handy/WBUR)

That support is based on report cards and each child's individual need, and a one-on-one relationship with tutors. Many of tutors have been volunteering for years.

Russell Opper, Cheryl's brother-in-law, is in his sixth year as a volunteer. He's working with a fourth-grader named Caden, who counts his years in the program looking forward. The boy wants to be a rocket scientist.

"And I have eight more years to graduate until I go to college and then I have four years if I want to get a master's degree," Caden says.

The program, funded entirely by donations, provides all the resources students need.

"Think about kids that need funds for a school class field trip," Cheryl Opper says. "You don't want our students in the shelters to be the ones sitting behind in the classroom, and so we make sure that our kids have everything that any other child has in that classroom."

A State Still In 'Crisis'

Kerenne Paul is graduating with a degree in mathematics. Her goal is to become an actuary. She is the middle child in the family with two older sisters and two younger brothers.

"Four of us are in college, and my youngest brother, he's talking about college," she says.

The Paul family is going against the trends.

Cheryl Opper says the homelessness crisis for families has only gotten worse.

"We're still in a crisis situation in our state," she says. "Family homelessness, I have seen the numbers really increase. When I first started in 2004 there were only 180 families in the motels throughout the state. Right now there's approximately 1,800 families in motels."

Paul says being homeless has taught her humility. That's why she will be back.

"A lot of people don't really think about the impact of homelessness on children ... and what School on Wheels is doing is really amazing," she says. "And in the future I look forward to working with School on Wheels and helping people who were like me, like I was at one point, and making their dreams come true."

But first, there's graduate school for Paul. School on Wheels is already helping, getting the letters of recommendations in and lining up summer jobs to help pay for it.


This segment aired on May 16, 2014.

Delores Handy Reporter
Delores Handy was formerly a host and reporter at WBUR.



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