Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana
Family: Husband; daughter, 9; and son, 8
The average age of a homeless person in Indianapolis is 9. Sally Bindley learned this shocking fact in 2001, when she was working in public relations. With a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in social work, she had always hoped to find a way to marry her two passions. Then her brother happened to mention a program that educates homeless kids in Los Angeles. Sally couldn't find anything like it in her area so she decided to start something similar (the two groups are not affiliated).
In September 2001, School on Wheels (SOW) officially rolled out its after-school tutoring program for kindergarteners through 12th-graders who live in shelters and transitional housing centers. Homeless youth are nine times more likely to repeat a grade and four times more likely to drop out of school. "These kids don't have a kitchen table where they can work on their homework like mine do," Sally says. SOW provides backpacks and new school uniforms that meet the dress code. Funding and supplies come from private donations, solicitations and fundraising events.
In the first year there were two staff members (including Sally), 10 tutors and 50 students. There are now 14 paid staffers and 548 tutors, who last year helped 415 kids. All of the employees, including Sally, teach at the various locations. Tutors make a weekly commitment to be at a particular site so they can help the same children regularly and form a relationship with them.
Volunteers also work with parents, who are often struggling to find jobs and homes, or are dealing with domestic violence. "We're advocates for the kids' needs and are someone they can trust," Sally says. "And that includes helping their parents if necessary." Staff members have office hours so parents can meet with them to discuss school issues, and they'll even go along to teacher conferences.
Sally discusses with her son, 8, and daughter, 9, what she does and encourages them to be inquisitive about other causes. She's thrilled they've gotten involved in SOW on their own; they host lemonade stands to raise money and plan to tutor when they're older.
Shortly before last Thanksgiving a student was upset, so Sally asked him to make a list of things he was thankful for. "It turns out he was just sad that there would be no tutoring during the break," she says. "Moments like that really put things into perspective and show me we're making a difference in these kids' lives."
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.