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School On Wheels Gives Homeless Students In Massachusetts A Chance To Get Ahead

Homelessness is a problem among young people in Massachusetts. One organization is trying to level the playing field for students impacted by homelessness. WGBH radios introduces us to School on Wheels of Massachusetts — and one young woman whose life is changed forever because of it.

"We started out pretty much like any other family," says Nicole O'Brien of Brockton. But 25-year-old O'Brien and her family soon found themselves homeless, victims of sorts of the Boston Marathon Bombing -- even though they weren't anywhere near the finish line.

"Our new landlord called us and said, 'I can't let you guys move in.' And we asked him, we said why not, what happened? And he said that the woman that was moving out was injured in the bombings, he goes, so she can't move out," explains Nicole.

Not having a place to live added more stress to being a college student at Bridgewater State University. Nicole worried about how she was going to live -- never mind get back and forth to school-- so she and her mom searched online for help.

"She asked if there were any organizations that helped out with school supplies because at that point I was using blank pieces of notebook paper that I had erased all of my notes from, because we just couldn't afford it," says Nicole.

Nicole found School on Wheels of Massachusetts -- they specialize in helping students affected by homelessness. Cheryl Opper is executive director of the program.

"The latest point in time study by the Department of Education estimates that there's approximately 37 thousand homeless school-aged children each  year," says Opper, and the average age of a homeless person in Massachusetts is 8 years old. "And every time I say that, I've been saying that for 12 years, it still feels like it's a punch in the stomach."

Since it was founded in 2004, SOW-MA has helped more than 2,000 students. They've also given out about 7500 school supplies including things like backpacks. After her first visit three years ago, Nicole walked out with more than enough supplies for school -- and a mentor:

"You know, I was fortunate that Nicole is very outgoing, very open, communicates very well, wanted a mentor, and we ended up with a very natural relationship from the get-go," says Kathy Strange, who has been in Nicole's life for the past three years. "We all have struggles, they're just different struggles."

For Nicole, a search for help turned out to be so much more.

She will graduate from Bridgewater State University with a degree in criminal justice in a few months-- and for that she credits School on Wheels of Massachusetts.

"I've never had to ask for anything," says Nicole. "From the very moment I walked in, it was a very welcoming environment."



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