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In Transition Mechanic Gives Up Lucrative Job To Work On Young Minds

There was a time when Tim Lorentz was happy fixing auto dents and cashing customers’ checks.

Eight years ago he realized he wanted something more from his life, even if that meant giving up income.

Lorentz went to college for a new career. Now he teaches at the Homeless School in Spokane, earning maybe half what he did as an auto-body mechanic.

For Lorentz, the desire to help others is more powerful than the pursuit of money.

“The rewards are definitely not monetary, but if you can help a child it’s worth it,” said the Gonzaga University graduate.

There’s no doubt these kids need help. Most come from broken homes. Their mothers frequently are fleeing domestic violence and the kids often are victims themselves.

Because of the problems, the parents are forced to seek temporary shelter in non-profit facilities.

Enrollment ranges from 20 to 35 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. Spokane School District 81 provides the teachers. Lorentz takes the older children. Ish Quidwai has the elementary-age kids.

The program is housed at the YWCA downtown and was formerly known as the Transition School.

The idea is to keep the kids in school while their families overcome turmoil.

The teachers cope with all kinds of situations. Some kids are disruptive. Some have learning disabilities. Others are good learners, children who appear normal in many ways.

“Most of them are just everyday good kids in a bad situation,” Lorentz said. “They function pretty normally even if they have been abused.”

They come and go quickly, sometimes staying only a few days.

Last week, one teenager was brought in off the streets. He had a bad attitude, Lorentz said, predicting he wouldn’t stay in the program for more than a few days.

Fortunately, the boy was fascinated with computers, so Lorentz got him working at a terminal. For a few hours, at least, he established some rapport.

“This is not like fixing a car,” said Lorentz, 38.

When he owned his own body shop, he could admire his work when it was done.

Teaching is different. There’s never a finished product, and the homeless children come and go so much the teachers are never sure if they’ve had any success.

Frequently, they talk about children who have left and wonder how they are doing.

“I can’t even take them through a whole year,” Lorentz lamented.

The trick, he said, is to treat children as individuals and help them learn to rely on themselves. When they succeed, they gain self-respect.

Lorentz tries to teach practical skills they’ll need when they get older and are on their own.

One subject is “market math.” He uses grocery ads from the newspaper and asks the students to add a typical grocery bill using various quantities of the advertised items.

The exercise teaches math and vocabulary as well as shopping skills.

Another technique is to plan lessons around current events. Last week, following the major quake in Japan, the kids were learning about the movements of the Earth’s crust that cause earthquakes.

Lorentz said the kids respond well to a positive role model. “They instantly have a relationship where if they like you, they’ll do anything for you,” he said.

“He’s a good teacher. He’s fun,” said Lynette, one of his students. She didn’t want her last name used because of a family dispute.

George Renner, who supervises alternative schools for the district, was even more complimentary. “He’s a great teacher,” he said.

After Lorentz got married, he said he decided it was time for a change.

His wife, Kathy, has been a special education teacher, and she inspired Lorentz to go into teaching. He spent a year at community college taking prerequisite courses and three years at Gonzaga, where he studied to become a special education teacher like his wife.

He started teaching in 1991, and asked for a transfer into the Homeless School two years ago.

He earns less than $24,000 a year on his nine-month contract, and supplements his income by teaching summer classes and doing a few car jobs on the side.

Recently, his wife quit teaching to raise the couple’s two children. A third child is due later this year.

As a result, the family scrimps financially, Lorentz said.

But the desire to help kids may be a product of Lorentz’s upbringing. When he was younger, his parents took in more than 60 foster kids.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a big hero,” he said. “I want to help kids. I think the rewards are trying to shape the future of the city we live in.”