Help out in Berkeley classrooms

Jacqueline Omania helps student Mila calculate zero waste at Oxford Elementary on December 9, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Tocosa Onea started volunteering in Hannah Margulis-Kessel’s kindergarten class in 2016. Six years later, he’s still her right-hand man.

Most of the time, he spends two or three hours in room 112 at Washington Elementary preparing supplies for art projects, pouring glue into small cups or working with students in small groups. He does whatever is necessary, but his favorite part of the day is reading. He loves to read aloud – “I’m becoming a great drama queen,” he jokes – but he also enjoys listening to students read to him.

“I think it’s very important to have children in your life. I get that connection here,” he said. “I felt really thrilled to be in their presence. They are so receptive and so open-minded and open-hearted.

Each year, the Berkeley Public Schools Fund places hundreds of volunteers like Onea in Berkeley classrooms to help tutor students, assist teachers, and serve as mentors.

The Education Fund is currently looking for additional volunteers to help with the school on a regular basis. Volunteers are paired with a Berkeley Unified Educator and assist in the classroom, work with students in small groups, and prepare class materials. They can also help coach sports teams, stock school library shelves, and support extracurricular groups like debate and robotics.

In the 2021-2022 school year, the fund placed 650 volunteers in classrooms, significantly more than usual because, that year alone, parents were required to attend the program. So far this year, 127 volunteers have been placed in classrooms.

Volunteers can work in classrooms ranging from transitional K-12 at Berkeley Adult School. Volunteers are expected to help at least one hour per week throughout the school year, although about half of volunteers contribute more than this, and some volunteers have up to three placements. Times are flexible and can be decided with the class teacher.

To become a classroom volunteer, complete the application form. Volunteers are matched with a teacher based on their grade, subject, and school preference, as well as where there is a higher need.

Class volunteers attend orientation and receive training throughout the year on topics such as literacy instruction and queer and gender inclusion.

During the pandemic, Berkeley Public Schools Fund volunteers have become essential to BUSD families, helping run the Ed-Hub, delivering groceries to families in need and more.

There are also volunteer opportunities to help out in the short term. Those interested can help with COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics, attend school events, help with grant writing and more. Spanish speakers can volunteer with the Spanish language team to provide translation assistance. You can choose the volunteer opportunities that interest you when you apply to become a school support volunteer.

“Teaching is too much for one person”

Tocosa Onea is now in its sixth year as a volunteer in Hannah Margulis-Kessel’s kindergarten class. Credit: Ally Markovich

Onea, 68, has no children himself and his great-nieces and great-nephews live far away, many in Alabama, where he grew up.

Onea worked as a mental health counselor and case manager with the city of Berkeley until his retirement in 2015. When an acquaintance suggested he volunteer as a counselor at Berkeley schools, he told her. refused, but instead decided to try volunteering in a classroom.

As a volunteer, he enjoys interacting with children. It provides a structure for his retreat, and in turn, students receive additional reading and math support and another role model in their lives.

Before Onea started volunteering in her classroom, Margulis-Kessel was exhausted and considered quitting the profession.

“Teaching is too much for one person,” said Margulis-Kessel, now in her 15th year of teaching. “I am grateful for the help.”

Having another mentor — especially one with different life experiences — is a blessing, she said.

“I think the No. 1 thing we need in schools is just loving, caring adults,” Margulis-Kessel said.

“It’s important to me that kids have positive experiences with a black man,” Onea added.

Over the years he volunteered in his class, Onea and Margulis-Kessel grew closer, and Onea helped fill an important gap.

“I’m counting on you,” Margulis-Kessel told Onea, seated at a picnic table outside Washington.

When asked when he would retire from volunteering, Onea said he doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.

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