Tutors offer homeless kids friendship, chance to learn

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

August 27, 1994|By Melinda Sacks | Melinda Sacks,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- You can't take the textbooks from school because teachers worry you'll lose them. You don't have any money to buy paper or pencils. There's no quiet place to do your homework. Your mom can't help because she has so many problems of her own. And who knows where your dad is?

"The hardest thing is that everybody else has a home and you don't," said 11-year-old Rocky, standing in the concrete courtyard of the San Jose Family Shelter, where he lives with his mother and sister. "Your mom can't make you a home-cooked meal. And even if there are computers, you can't just play with them when you want."

But at least there are some computers in one of the tiny rooms used for daily tutoring for Rocky and his peers, who are matched with trained mentors for academic help and just plain friendship.

Run by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the #i Homeless Education Project's Tutorial Program provides one-on-one tutoring at three county locations -- the San Jose Family Shelter, Santa Clara Family Living Center and the Bill Wilson Center.

With an annual budget of less than $70,000, the program is still short of even the most basic supplies. Volunteer tutors are always hard to come by. And there are hundreds of homeless children in this and neighboring counties not receiving any tutoring services at all.

"This program gives people a little hope for the future," said Vanessa Castaneda, a 16-year-old Leigh High School student who is a volunteer tutor. "I'm doing this because if no one cares in the world, we're all lost. You see homeless kids on TV all the time, and they have nothing. It's not their fault."

Like the more than 50 tutors who volunteer, Vanessa has gone through intensive orientation and training before beginning to work with individual kids. Her job is to help them with basic skills, and to be a friend and role model.

"So many of them don't even know how old they are or when their birthdays are," said Vanessa. "Even at the age of 5 or 6, they're so street-smart. They use really foul language, and they've already learned how to be violent. I want them to know there is another way to live your life."

It's a hot, muggy August evening, but the children who live at the San Jose Family Shelter have shown up for class anyway. In four small, stuffy rooms, tutors who have come from as far as San Francisco lean over math books with 7-year-olds, paint in watercolors with 5-year-olds and play computer games with 11-year-olds.

In the summer, the 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. time slot is more likely to be used to brush up on basic skills or play a game, whereas during the school year, homework assignments are often the focus.

The goal of the program, said supplemental education specialist Emily Coronado, is to increase knowledge and learning skills and to develop self-esteem.

"These children are dealing with so many issues, and many of them are traumatized," she said. "Their parents are separated, they are victims of abuse, they are constantly changing schools. They're pretty needy. Our job is to enhance their education and to make sure they stay connected with the school and the community."

Not an easy task, staff members admit, considering that the 89 children living in the San Jose Family Shelter alone attend 35 different schools. To make it possible to help, the shelter has purchased a set of the school district's basic textbooks for first grade through high school.

Homeless children move an average of 10 to 12 times a year, said education specialist Barbara Werner, who works for the county Office of Education. As a result, children can miss up to six weeks of school at a time. And some of them aren't enrolled at all because they lack necessary immunization or student academic records. It is a far cry from a stable family life.

"These kids can't invite friends over, and there are none of the usual childhood things like sleep-overs," said Ms. Werner. "Then there is the added stigmatism of what people think about homelessness. They have a lot to contend with."

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