Interview With Sowma Founder Cheryl Opper by Ruthann Baler

Cheryl is pictured with her mentor, retired teacher Agnes Steven,
who founded School on Wheels of Southern California in 1993
after observing hundreds of children on the streets
in Los Angeles and learning their families were living out of cars on Skid Row.

By Ruthann S Baler

“Take it From Them” profiles community leaders, entrepreneurs, business owners, and artists who have inspired change, brought communities together, and made valuable contributions to their professions.

School on Wheels of Massachusetts (SOWMA) is a private, nonprofit 501 (C) (3) organization that supports the academic, social, and emotional growth of students in grades K-12 who are impacted by homelessness. SOWMA was founded in 2004 by teacher and child advocate Cheryl Opper after she read a magazine article featuring Agnes Stevens, a retired teacher in Southern California who saw hundreds of children on the streets in Los Angeles during school hours. After learning their families were living out of cars on Skid Row, Agnes and a group of friends gathered books and school supplies and helped the parents enroll their children in school. The group provided school uniforms, filled backpacks, and tutoring, which led to the founding of School on Wheels.

Inspired by this activism, Cheryl set out to bring School on Wheels to Massachusetts. Within several months, she started SOWMA from the kitchen of her Easton, Mass. home. Family and friends helped fill backpacks with donated school supplies for 20 children living at two family shelters in neighboring towns.

Today, SOWMA distributes approximately 7,000 backpacks each school year to homeless students living in 38 Massachusetts communities. Along with donated backpacks, hundreds of trained volunteers provide one-on-one tutoring to approximately 300 students at 18 program locations from Boston to Massachusetts’ east coast. SOWMA’s Bridge Mentoring Program provides nearly 100 high school and college-age students with financial support and mentors who guide students throughout their high school careers and into their post-secondary plans, including college, vocational training, and job placements. SOWMA’s core program areas include backpacks/school supplies, tutoring/mentoring and post-secondary educational assistance.

Cheryl Opper, founder of SOWMA, is pictured with former student Zach as they celebrate his graduation from Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass. Zach received a scholarship from BSU, studied abroad for one year, was inducted into the National Math Honor Society, and received his Chartered Financial Analyst license while earning his MBA from the University of Houston.

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