CONCORD -- James Wogan picked up a mother and two young children from a motel Friday and drove them to a shelter, because they had no money and nowhere to live.

For Wogan, helping homeless children, foster youths and other students who are struggling in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District is an around-the-clock job. He works with students who have suffered trauma, abuse, hunger, despair, loneliness and who have considered suicide.

"I bear witness to many of the struggles that kids have," he said somberly, in his office at Olympic continuation high school. "I struggle between feeling grateful for what we have done for them and knowing that we're still not meeting the needs of all the kids."

He and his staff strive to help turn around students' lives so they can be happy, successful and hopeful about their futures. They provide food, bus passes and even cellphone minutes to help families get by.

"Our goals are to see kids smiling and feeling good about themselves and doing well in school," said Wogan, who administers programs for homeless and foster youths, along with "care teams" that work with students who are struggling with academic or behavior issues. "Often, kids struggle when life is not predictable. It leads to a lot of stress and anxiety."

The district served a record 540 homeless students this year, including those who are "doubled up" living with family or friends, in shelters, motels, cars or tents, he said. These families come from all walks of life, from towns and cities such as Clayton, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill and Concord.

"I think there are more than we know about," he said. "There is some stigma with the term 'homeless.' "

Finding stability

Students whose lives are turned upside down -- through homelessness or being taken from their parents and placed in foster care -- live with a great deal of uncertainty, he said. His programs aim to bring stability to their lives, along with caring adults who are there for them and can be reached by phone or text message, even on nights and weekends.

When stress is decreased, he said, students can focus more easily on their schoolwork. One previously homeless student who was barely squeaking by with D's and a C at the beginning of the year is now on the honor roll at a district high school, Wogan said.

And the district has the highest foster youth graduation rate in the state, he said. The average is 50 percent, but 92 percent of Mt. Diablo's foster youths graduate.

"Of course, we want it to be 100 (percent)," he said. "For them, graduation is bittersweet. They're proud but really worried about where they are going to live."

Although the number of foster youths served is down, the severity of their situations has increased, he said.

"To be removed from custody due to abuse," he said, "it has to be pretty significant abuse."

Foster youths and homeless children sometimes move to different homes several times a year, which can be disruptive and unsettling. But the law requires school districts to allow them to remain in their original home schools, so they can maintain their friendships and relationships with teachers and administrators, Wogan said.

He helps coordinate services that allow students to get to and from school, get something to eat, get tutoring help so they can keep up with their schoolwork and have a shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough. He has obtained grants and built community partnerships with John F. Kennedy University, county programs and other organizations that provide social workers and counselors to students, along with training for district staff members so they know how to reach out to vulnerable students.

"We're all at the table," he said, "serving high-risk kids."

Wogan was also instrumental in creating the Diablo Community Center at Mt. Diablo High, where he used a "strength-based approach" to build the program by asking students what interested them. Then, he and his colleagues incorporated students' ideas, such as hip-hop and poetry.

He believes that all students can succeed, if they get the support they need. And his commitment to this vision inspires others.

"He's just really amazing working with the students," said Ann McCollough, who helps coordinate communication with families, schools and agencies for Wogan's programs. "I think he changes a lot of lives, actually."

But Wogan said working with the neediest students and their families has changed his life.

"I've seen a lot of transformations -- from shame over situations they have no control over -- to pride," he said. "It's so rewarding to be a part of."

Changing lives

What he likes most about his job is seeing kids take ownership of their education and realizing they are going to make it, he said. Foster youth Cookieey Ropati, 17, said Wogan and his staff helped her stick with school by being available to talk 24/7.

"When we go through certain situations, they go through it with us," she said. "They're very heartfelt. They're down-to-earth. It's important for us to know that we can trust them and they're showing us that we can trust them. Some foster kids feel alone. But here, we feel together."

Four foster youths graduated from Olympic High on Thursday. But with this newfound freedom comes independence, which most teens and young adults are not quite ready to take on, Wogan said.

Because of this, he and his staff stay connected to students even after they graduate, through phone calls, emails and visits.

"I've never liked the term 'independent,' " Wogan said. "I think -- like basketball -- we all need five people on our team just to face the game of life."

HOMETOWN HERO
Name: James Wogan
Hometown: Oakland
Age: 48
Occupation: Mt. Diablo Unified School District social worker and administrator
Family: Wife Leslie Parr; children Aidan, 10, and Cole, 8
Claim to fame: Leads districtwide program to serve foster youths that has earned the highest graduation rate in California; established Coordinated Care Teams, a model used throughout the district to support students who are struggling academically and behaviorally; started a donation and nonperishable food program for homeless families that delivered 917 boxes of food last year to many children who would otherwise go hungry.
Quote: "I keep kids off the street and in school."
For more on school-linked services or to donate to homeless and foster youth programs, go to www.mdusd.org/Departments/studentservices/SchoolLinkedServices. Additional information can be found in the On Assignment blog at IBABuzz.com/onassignment.
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the Hometown Heroes feature aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofits and key causes in the area, and create a spirit of giving.
Read about a new Hometown Hero every other Tuesday and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes.
Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.