Confessions of a Women’s Conference Escort 2009

Agnes Stevens, founder of School on Wheels was honored with a Minerva Award at the newly re-titled Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women and Families.

The award is given to women who exemplify the courage and wisdom of the Roman goddess whose likeness appears on California’s state seal.

“Warriors on the frontline of humanity,” First Lady Maria Shriver said at the conference of the four Minerva award winners.

“They all show a willingness to act on the compassion they feel towards others and I know of no greater gift to our world than that,” Shriver said.

Each Minerva winner is assigned an escort, a volunteer who helps ensure their experience at the two-day conference is stress and mistake-free.

Two minutes with Agnes – let alone two days – is a delight and easy proof her 20 years educating homeless children is deserving of not only a Minerva but the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, the children’s “Nobel Prize,” which she received in 2008.

Generous and genuine, Agnes with her short curly, gray hair, which she says she cuts when it gets too long to wash and let dry on its own, started School on Wheels after she read a book on homelessness as friend gave her.

Appalled by the number of homeless and the educational obstacles of homeless children, she ended her retirement from teaching and began to tutor homeless kids. Now, nearly 1,000 volunteers throughout Southern California mentor homeless kids through Agnes’ organization.

One woman helped by the organization is a freshman at UCLA. Another is a student at Harvard.

During the two days of the conference, Agnes speaks passionately in conversation about the dearth of public school funding, the closing of domestic violence centers and the failure of politicians to adequately address the needs of the homeless, particularly children.

She raises her hand when Sir Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group of companies, asks the audience who favors a mandate that 50 percent of the membership of all or prorate boards be women.  Agnes is in the minority.

Her craggy face can lock in determination but a joke or funny comment unleashes a broad, infectious grin – and usually a snappy rejoinder. She also has a mischievous sense of humor.

School on Wheels Executive Director Catherine Meek accompanied Agnes to the conference. However, she didn’t have the same all-access passes Agnes and her escort did. That meant Catherine was routinely stopped and told she couldn’t enter places Agnes could.

“They’ve been suspicious of you from the start,” Agnes says to her.

“As well they should,” Catherine retorts.

Agnes, 74, routinely walks Skid Row looking for homeless kids. “They don’t come to you,” she says. School on Wheels has a center there where homeless families drop off their kids, knowing they’ll be safe. Agnes says the only thing that scares her is dogs.

“They can smell when you’re afraid,” she says.

Chit-chatting about the level of congestion on Los Angeles freeways, Agnes says she only drives surface streets, commuting from her mobile home at Paradise Cove in Malibu, a long drive to School on Wheels’ Skid Row center. She laughs when asked if Jim Rockford is her neighbor.

Agnes and Catherine have given away their tickets to various seminars at the conference to School on Wheels staff. Agnes says. Somewhat sheepishly, she says she would like to attend a panel featuring US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who successfully landed his plane in the Hudson River and helped save all passengers and crew.

Agnes considers him a hero and like his self-effacing behavior after the incident.

Tickets aren’t in abundance. But Tamara Torlakson, one of the women who helped organize the conference, come sup with two. Catherine and Agnes are grateful.

This sort of karma clings to Agnes throughout the conference. Watching Caroline Kennedy on television as she kicks off the Minerva award ceremony. Agnes says she wishes she could meet her.  Because she is the first Minerva to be honored, Agnes is sitting on a chair backstage as Kennedy walks off and gets to shake her hand.

Catherine says that Agnes, a former nun, wears only sweat suits and tennis shoes and so, prior to the conference, Catherine takes her to a department store to buy an outfit more suitable for an award ceremony in front of 25,000 people.

“I don’t know what to do,” Agnes says when they enter the store.

Catherine – the first Skid Row volunteer, Agnes says – is a force herself. From Glasgow, the two-time cancer survivor helped professionalize School on Wheels, creating a handbook for the organization’s 16 employees.

“I couldn’t imagine we’d ever have an employee handbook, Agnes says. “I thought that would be the end,” she jokes.

During the two days of the conference three of the four Minerva winners are together at an October 26 reception thanking the event’s sponsors and sit at a table in the Long Beach Arena listening to presentations and panel discussions.

Dr. Jane Goodall, the fourth recipient, is busy with a flurry of book signings and meetings with the press.

Agnes laugh as Geena Davis tells the audience that at the rate we’re adding women to Congress there should be parity between the sexes in 500 years.

“I say that’s too long, Davis deadpans. “I say we cut that in half – 250 years is plenty of time.”

Also at the table is Dr. Kathy Hull, another recipient. She is the co-founder of George Mark House, the nation’s first stand-alone, residential pediatric hospice. She is accompanied by her husband.

Helen Devore Waukazoo, co-founder of the American Indian Friendship House in San Francisco   spends the morning of October 27 at the conference but decides to rest at her hotel before the awards ceremony allowing her escort, 2007 Minerva winner Commander Maureen Pennington to shop in the large exhibit hall next to the arena, the first time she’s been able to do so at one of the conferences.

Agnes and Catherine stay for the afternoon program which features Katie Couric, Shriver and a panel on grieving with Elizabeth Edwards and Susan St. James, both of whom lost teenage sons in accidents as well as Patrick Swayze’s wife, Lisa Niemi. Shriver recounts the effect on her of the loss of her “mummy” and “Uncle Teddy.” Couric, the death of 42-year-old husband of colo-rectal cancer. Catherine is teary eyed.

The first time all four recipients are together is the holding room prior to the awards ceremony. Agnes shakes Goodall’s hand and tells her she is great.

Goodall, who said she was cold all day, tells Agnes: “You’re great too.

Agnes removes her black tennis shows and replaces them with black patent flats for the ceremony. She sips a little lemonade.

Goodall writes talking points in cramped writing on tan, enveloped-sized sheets of what appears to be recycled paper. Hull tinkers with her thank you speech. Like Agnes, Waukazoo waits quietly.

At the walk-through of the ceremony, Agnes is asked if she wants to make any changes to the text she supplied in advance on the teleprompter. Agnes makes a few changes, joking that it will help generate more contributions. On the way back, to the holding room, she remarks on what a nice woman the technician is.

She is equally generous with the man who does her face in the black Georgio Armani tent where speakers and Minerva winners can a free make-up job. When the make-up artist is finished, Agnes shakes his hand.

After a video highlighting her work, a smiling Agnes came on stage, waving at the crowd with both hands.

In her speech, she called on people to do something in their communities until there were no more homeless children living in streets or in cars.  She said she was “honored and humbled to be in the company of so many wonderful women who have received this award.”

Of homeless children, she said:

 “I am constantly amazed by the courage of these children who find the strength within themselves to study and learn every day, no matter how many times they move or how many schools they attend. In honoring me, you honor the homeless children.

Agnes was walking off the stage when Shriver the award came with $25,000.

“She’s walking away,” Shriver said. “Don’t walk away when I’m giving you the big money.”

Goodall, the final recipient to be honored twice referenced Agnes’ work and that of the other two recipients as important.

After the ceremony during the rounds of photographs of the winners, Agnes and Goodall struck up a conversation, one of the central aspects of the conference — the bringing together disparate women seeking a common purpose.

The day following the conference in an e-mailed thank you to her escort, Agnes said this:

“This whole experience was amazing – all the wonderful speakers, all the wonderful women attending and the three Minerva Winners I met. To be honored with them was truly “cool”.  Their stories and they themselves meant much to me and I learned much from them.”


Agnes in the Green Room

Agnes in the Green Room

(Editor’s Note: Photos by Tracey Fuller, Dr. Hull’s escort. Watch the Minerva Awards presentation here. Click the Button below the “Our Webcast” section. Agnes starts just after minute 23. More information on School on Wheels is here.)



Filed under: News


  1. Very nice.

    I’m starting to get a bit burned-out on the over-hyping of this – what is now Maria’s – celebrity-fest, but this story somewhat softened my hardened feelings.

    Comment by NoOneInParticular — 10.29.2009 @ 8:27 am

  2. The aging crowd at the Capitol might recall that the Conference on Women was actually Senator Bill Campbell’s Conference on Women for several years. It was his baby, and it was very successful at that point as well. The GO picked it up after Campbell left the Senate.

    Comment by SugarMuffin — 10.29.2009 @ 10:39 am

  3. Thank you for your perfect depiction of Agnes Stevens. Though the content of the 2009 Women\’s Conference brought me to tears many times (numerous tales of rape, suffering and death), it was the story of the children on skid row fighting for their education that rocked me to my soul. How inspiring and heartening to see this spunky ol\’ lady coming forward as their advocate, and to see how her organization has grown. Agnes is fighting the good fight and I hope to one day soon become one of her warriors. Her work should be a template for this entire state, let alone nation.

    Comment by LBC — 11.09.2009 @ 11:08 am

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