IMPACT
07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It Just Takes One: School On Wheels Changes The Lives Of Children And Their Families

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In honor of Mother's Day, HuffPost Impact presents It Just Takes One, a series on children and the tutors, mentors, guardians and others who have made a difference in their lives. We'll be featuring a new story every day through Mother's Day.

Sometimes setbacks are the best way to push yourself forward. Or, so thinks Vanessa Lee.

"The first thing that attracted me to volunteering -- I had just left my job. I had a full-time management job which I quit because I was totally overwhelmed. I took three months off and I was bored, so I was looking for something, something I could do every week."

She found School on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that provides tutors and other educational opportunities to homeless children. Matched with a young boy named Bryan, who has moved with his mother and sister from shelter to shelter, she became a special fixture in the boy's life, and soon found that she had a second family of her own.

Lee visits Bryan once a week -- they work on reading, math, science, spelling, and sometimes just play games. She's not just a tutor -- she listens to him. Bryan and his family are finally living in their own apartment in Inglewood, Calif., and reintegrating into a stable lifestyle is something Lee has emphasized.

Often, she thinks of herself more as a distant aunt or cousin than just a tutor. As a former personal chef, Lee's been teaching Bryan and her younger sister, Leslie, how to cook and develop healthy eating habits.

"I'm more of like a family friend, I feel, than a tutor," she said. "Now that they live in their own apartment, it's such a different feeling and it feels so good to be a part of that. When he gets positive phone calls from the teacher, we try to celebrate that by doing something fun instead of just me coming over and doing homework. It's very rewarding."

Chef Bryan

Chef Bryan getting his vegetables on.

Though the connection started when she met Bryan, she's close to Leslie and their mother, Lucia, as well (though Leslie has her own School on Wheels tutor). That they share a Hispanic background may have strengthened the connection.

"I grew up in a family that was very night and day," she said. "My dad's side was very traditional -- women in the kitchen. I was exposed to both worlds. I've always believed in women taking care of themselves."

Lee learned from an early age about independence. She and her mother lived out of motels for years in Venezuela. She was fortunate, she said, to have family in the United States that took her in. She learned self-sufficiency, worked hard, and is now imparting that wisdom on to Bryan.

"It's changed me because it opened my eyes to other realities and also opened my eyes to the power that education has," she told me. "Education pulled me away from going down the wrong path."

School on Wheels is always in need of new volunteers. Read more volunteer stories and apply to become a volunteer tutor.