Tocosa Onea began volunteering in Hannah Margulis-Kessel’s kindergarten classroom in 2016. Six years later, he is still her right-hand man.
Most days, he spends two or three hours in Room 112 at Washington Elementary preparing supplies for art projects, pouring glue into little cups or working with students in small groups. He does whatever is needed, but his favorite part of the day is reading. He loves reading aloud — “I get to be a big drama queen,” he jokes — but he enjoys listening to students read to him, too.
“I think it’s really important to have children in one’s life. I get that connection here,” he said. “I just felt really delighted by being 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 classroom teachers and serve as mentors.
The education fund is currently seeking more volunteers to help out at school on a regular basis. Volunteers are paired with a Berkeley Unified educator and help out in the classroom, working with students in small groups and preparing classroom materials. They can also help coach sports teams, restock the shelves at school libraries and support extracurricular groups like debate and robotics.
Over the 2021-22 school year, the fund placed 650 volunteers in classrooms, significantly more than usual because, that year only, parents were required to go through the program. So far this year, 127 volunteers have been placed in classrooms.
Volunteers can work in classrooms ranging from transitional kindergarten to 12th grade to the Berkeley Adult School. Volunteers must help out at least one hour per week for the entire school year, though about half the volunteers contribute more than that, and some volunteers have up to three placements. The hours are flexible and can be decided with the classroom teacher.
To become a classroom volunteer, fill out the application form. Volunteers are matched with a teacher based on their preference for grade level, subject and school, as well as where there is higher need.
Classroom volunteers attend orientation and receive training throughout the year on topics like teaching literacy and queer and gender inclusion.
During the pandemic, Berkeley Public Schools Fund volunteers became essential to BUSD families, helping to run the Ed-Hub, delivering groceries to families in need and more.
There are also volunteer opportunities to help out on a short-term basis. Those interested can help with COVID-19 testing and vaccine clinics, assist at 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’
Onea, 68, doesn’t have kids himself and his grand-nieces and grand-nephews live far away, many in Alabama, where he was raised.
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 in Berkeley schools, he turned her down, but decided to try volunteering in a classroom instead.
As a volunteer, he enjoys interacting with children. It provides structure for his retirement, and in turn, the students get extra support in reading and math and another role model in their lives.
Before Onea started volunteering in her classroom, Margulis-Kessel was burned out and considered leaving the profession.
“Teaching is too much for one person,” Margulis-Kessel said, now in her 15th year of teaching. “I’m 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 matters to me that the kids are having experiences with a Black man that is positive,” Onea added.
Over the years he has volunteered in her classroom, Onea and Margulis-Kessel have grown close, and Onea has helped fill an important gap.
“I have come to rely on you,” Margulis-Kessel tells Onea, seated at a picnic table outside Washington.
When asked when he will retire from volunteering, Onea said he didn’t plan to stop anytime soon.