(Photo Courtesy of Katherine Dang)
Katherine Dang is a local college student helping kids experiencing homelessness through education.
It’s a small commitment with a big impact. Once a week for an hour, Irvine resident Katherine Dang hops on a Zoom call with a fifth-grader to help her with schoolwork. During breaks, they indulge the girl’s interest in art and play Pictionary.
Dang, 21, is a volunteer and a rising star with School on Wheels. The nonprofit organization provides educational services and supplies for Southern California children K through 12th grade who are experiencing homelessness. Close to 30,000 of those kids are in Orange County. Dang is also pursuing a biochemistry degree at University of California, Santa Barbara, where in an effort to offset tuition costs, she started tutoring her peers and found she had a passion for it.
“It makes me happy to know that I can make a difference in their education in some way,” she said.
Dang started working with School on Wheels in fall 2020. Her first student was a second-grader living in a domestic violence shelter. He could barely read. Their time together was transformational for both sides.
“I didn’t expect him to improve so fast so for me it was just really inspirational,” Dang said referring to the boy’s challenging conditions, which they never discussed in detail. “You know, if he can do this, I can try to accomplish bigger things.”
Many children going through homelessness fall behind on their education as frequent moves and unstable living conditions often cause them to miss classes. School on Wheels comes in to fill the gaps. Typically, the volunteers meet their students in person, but due to COVID restrictions classes have been happening on Zoom.
Sometimes the lessons end abruptly when the student moves and loses contact with the organization. That’s what happened with Dang’s first student.
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Dang became a major advocate for School on Wheels pretty much from the start. Since her university didn’t have a local chapter, she decided to start one, figured out all the formalities and recruited volunteer students. By now, the UCSB chapter has about 140 tutors and has raised more than $10,000 in grants and through fundraisers that cover background checks for volunteers and supplies for the kids. It’s School on Wheels’ largest university chapter (there are six). Dang is now working on replicating the success at University of California, Irvine and is in talks with School on Wheels about becoming a college advisor, helping other SoCal universities start and grow their chapters.
“It just kind of became like a really big thing for me, like it’s a big part of my life now,” Dang said. “I’m very grateful for it.”
So big that Dang decided to use profits from the children’s book she wrote to raise funds for School on Wheels. “Pennington Panda” tells a story of a video-game-obsessed panda who finds a more meaningful purpose for life and contributing to society. Writing a children’s book has always been a dream for Dang, and she always knew she wanted it to benefit a good cause. Things fell into place when she became a part of School on Wheels. Just like with starting the college organization, she was a total newbie in the world of publishing but figured things out and self-published on Amazon to maximize the profits that would go to charity.
“Katherine is a fabulous volunteer and has gone over and above as a volunteer and tutor for our students,” said Sinéad Chilton, chief development and marketing officer for School on Wheels. “She works tirelessly to advocate for the children we serve living in shelters, motels, vehicles, on the streets and in group homes throughout Southern California.”
After college, Dang plans on becoming a surgeon and a clinical researcher for treatments for kids in underserved communities. And while she has long-term plans for working with School on Wheels, she also wants to start her own literacy program for Irvine and Santa Ana areas.
By Magda Hernandez