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  • Morse Insurance Community Spotlight: School on Wheels Massachusetts (SOWMA)

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By supporting the academic, social, and emotional growth of students living in family shelters and transitional housing, this nonprofit is ending the cycle of homelessness, one child at a time.

Morse Insurance is back with another Community Spotlight, a blog series where we shine a bright and well-deserved light on an outstanding nonprofit in our local community.

This month, we sat down with Tammie Heinrichs, the development director at School on Wheels Massachusetts (SOWMA), a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization based in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. We talked with Tammie about SOWMA’s humble beginnings, how it has grown over the past 16 years, the critical services it provides to local youth, and what this important organization has planned for the future.

As SOWMA’s insurance partner and proud supporter since 2013, the Morse team is thrilled to be able to share more about this wonderful nonprofit and its invaluable mission.

Q: How did School on Wheels Massachusetts get its start?

A: Our founder, Cheryl Opper, taught preschool and kindergarten for years and always had a passion for helping children learn and succeed. In 2004, she read a magazine article about a nonprofit organization called School on Wheels California, which provided educational resources and supplies to children experiencing homelessness. Cheryl found this article so inspiring that she decided to start a similar program in Massachusetts to support homeless students who were struggling to stay in school and on track academically.

SOWMA’s first “headquarters”’ was at Cheryl’s kitchen table, and it began as a simple backpack program. With the help of several volunteers, Cheryl would fill donated backpacks with school supplies, which had also been donated, and deliver them to family shelters in Brockton. After just a few interactions with the children in these shelters, Cheryl could see there was a need for much more than school materials. These children needed broader academic support. So, she struck up partnerships with the shelters’ managers and recruited more volunteers to help her develop a tutoring program. The role of these tutors was to spend one-on-one time with students in the shelter and assist them with their school assignments.

From there, SOWMA grew somewhat organically as word spread about the work Cheryl and her volunteers were doing. Their efforts resonated with the local community, leading many more people to step up to fund the organization’s efforts and volunteer. Cheryl also gained a crucial partner in W.B. Mason, a national distributor of office and school supplies, which was founded in Brockton.

Q: How has SOWMA expanded and changed over the years?

A: Today, we serve 38 communities in Massachusetts, through 18 tutoring and learning sites. Our tutoring program provides academic support to children of all ages, who can begin as early as four or five years old and continue until they graduate high school. SOWMA also now offers a bridge mentoring program, which provides guidance, encouragement, and life skills to teens as they graduate from high school and transition to post-secondary education, alternative career training, or directly enter the workforce.

Our tutors and bridge mentors support students academically. More importantly, they provide encouragement to students facing homelessness, helping them see there are numerous opportunities beyond their current circumstances. The caring and consistent support these tutors and mentors provide to our students shows them that SOWMA is here, and will continue to be here for them, on their path to success.

Becoming a tutor is a commitment of time and of the heart. We are very grateful to our team of educators. While many of the tutors are adults with professional experience in the education field, others are people who see a need and recognize the impact their time can have in changing the life of a child. We also have student volunteers, as well as past SOWMA students, who have returned to give back to the organization that they benefited from so greatly.

Our ability to expand our services would not have been possible without the support of all these volunteers. We are so fortunate to have an amazing group of caring, loyal people who do everything from holding supply drives to helping out in our Community Room and serving as tutors, mentors, and friends.

Q: How does School on Wheels Massachusetts differ from other tutoring services in the area?

A: Well, to begin, I want to say that I think there are some amazing tutoring programs throughout Massachusetts. However, I believe that School on Wheels is different, because our goal is to change a child’s cycle of homelessness by focusing on academics.

Before we even begin tutoring a child, we make sure they have the necessary school supplies and provide them with a fully stocked backpack through our Tools for School program. Last year, during the pandemic, we provided over 6,500 backpacks to needy students through this important initiative. This simple step places students on a trajectory of success, as it helps them become confident and enthusiastic about learning. From there, we look to develop genuine connections with as many students as possible, which isn’t always easy, since children who live in the shelter system can move, on average, three times a year. However, we stress to each child in our program that SOWMA will be there for them and will provide academic and emotional support throughout their struggles with homelessness.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced amidst all of the success?

A: I’ve worked in this industry for quite some time, but nothing could have prepared me (or any of us) for the coronavirus pandemic. People and businesses became nervous about their finances and job security, and rightfully so. Even though this made our fundraising and in-kind support efforts more difficult for SOWMA, we have a wonderful group of families, donors, and funders, who stepped up generously to help our organization through the challenges.

In addition, the pandemic impacted the children we serve harder than most. Our students had to adapt to remote learning just like everyone else, but they had to do it in a homeless shelter as opposed to their own home. Restrictions were put into place, and we have not been allowed into the homeless shelters where many of our tutoring and learning centers are hosted. In addition, many of these children didn’t have access to technology.

We had to come up with creative strategies for maintaining funding and providing our students with the unique things they needed to continue to learn during the pandemic. One such initiative was a fundraising event, in collaboration with a grant funder, that raised money to purchase Chromebooks for our students so they could do their schoolwork and attend tutoring sessions remotely.

The hardest part of this past year for me, though, was knowing that these homeless children, who were already accustomed to feeling so unsettled, were faced now with yet another obstacle to overcome. We have done our best to assure our students that SOWMA is still here, that we’re going to continue to work for them and with them, and that we’re not going anywhere.

Q: What’s in store for School on Wheels Massachusetts in the future?

A: I’m pleased to say that I think the future looks very busy for School on Wheels! There are a lot of exciting changes coming our way, and as we continue to move forward through the pandemic, I know everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. I am confident School on Wheels is going to continue to expand and grow as we receive increased exposure across Massachusetts. This will allow us to provide services in more communities for more children struggling with homelessness. We’re already starting to expand our services into the Boston area, and from there, I think our growth will explode.

School on Wheels started in our founder’s kitchen, and we have an amazing story that will hopefully resonate with a lot of people. I speak for everyone at School on Wheels in saying that we feel truly blessed to have the opportunity every day to help these children break the cycle of homelessness through academics.

Q: How has Morse Insurance helped SOWMA achieve its mission?

A: Morse Insurance is a wonderful organization to work with, and their team always ensures all our needs are met. Morse has sponsored and made donations to our many fundraisers and has expertly taken care of our insurance needs. Whatever we need, whenever we need it, the Morse team always responds to us promptly and in a professional and thoughtful manner. We consider Morse a close partner and are so grateful for its continued support.

Q: How can our readers support SOWMA?

A: There are so many ways to become involved with School on Wheels and to become part of the change in a child’s life. Volunteer opportunities are available in so many capacities, from an hour or two in our Community Room to running a supply drive or making the bigger commitment of becoming a tutor or mentor. Volunteering can be a great team-building exercise for your business, church group, or friends.

Another way to help support our mission is to get involved with any one of the many fundraising events we hold throughout the year. In May of each year, we host a “Run, Walk & Wag for Kids” event. Participants complete a 5k walk or run with their dogs and raise money for SOWMA by asking friends and family to sponsor them.

We are also fortunate to have a charitable team entry with the Falmouth Road Race in August. Anyone is welcome to join our team and raise money to bring tutoring, mentoring, and quality backpacks and supplies to the thousands of children and youth facing homelessness throughout the community.

Another great opportunity to help out is by accepting the annual “100 Families Challenge,” which occurs in June. This event is made possible by a generous family who gives a $10,000 donation every year. SOWMA then asks 100 other families to join together to match this donation by giving their own $100 donation. The challenge’s goal is to raise $20,000 for SOWMA each year.

Finally, our biggest fundraiser, SOWMA’s annual gala, traditionally held in November, is always an incredible night of celebration and gratitude. We not only invite the community to participate, but we also welcome businesses to become a sponsor.

Monetary donations can be made in honor of a valued teacher or colleague, as well as in tribute to honor the passing of a loved one. Every contribution has an enormous effect and helps us fulfill our mission of dramatically changing the lives of children who are impacted by the trauma of homelessness.

Morse thanks Tammie Heinrichs for her time and, of course, encourages you to find out more about School on Wheels Massachusetts by visiting its website or following SOWMA on Instagram. Also, we hope you’ll stay tuned to the Morse blog and Facebook page, so you’ll be the first to hear about our next Community Spotlight.