To celebrate our inspiring Oakland School Volunteers, we’re asking them to share their stories. These are their Volunteer Voices.
When Jessica Slice’s name was announced as the 2017 Oakland School Volunteer of the Year at our Oakland School Volunteer Appreciation Party in April, at first she thought there’d been a mistake.
Jessica has been an ongoing volunteer at Urban Promise Academy (UPA) throughout the 2016-17 school year, meeting with a group of middle-school newcomer girls for 1-2 hours every week. She helps them practice their English through games like charades or Pictionary, craft projects, or sometimes just singing along to music on her phone.
Their meetings with Jessica provide more individual time and attention than the students would get otherwise in their bigger class. This extra time is a huge boost for girls at an age when many can get off track academically, especially with the challenge of a new language and culture.
So why would Jessica be surprised to be named Volunteer of the Year?
“I’ve had no training as a teacher, and wasn’t sure if I was good enough to volunteer with these girls. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to offer anything.
“But I’ve learned a big lesson from volunteering: that even though I might feel inadequate, the most valuable thing I can offer is to be consistent and care. That’s what’s been most valuable, to the girls and to me.”
Jessica was new to Oakland and wanted to connect with the city and community, which led her to the Ed Fund’s Oakland School Volunteers program.
She had positive memories of mentoring middle-school girls while she was in high school, so the match with UPA felt like a good fit, especially because the newcomer girls she works with are also seeking connection.
“Almost without exception, the girls have had difficult stories up to this point, and it can be hard for them to get the attention they need,” Jessica says. “I try to be as reliable as possible, to establish a routine they can count on. Every week I bring pillows and snacks, I know their birthdays and bring small gifts. It all helps to create a safe space where we can connect and talk.”
Honesty Is the Best Policy
One other big factor that makes their time together meaningful: honesty. Jessica shares with the girls about the challenges and joys in her own life, from what it’s like to live with a physical disability to being a foster mom to a baby boy.
She explains that “the more I’m open with them about my life, the more real our time feels. I try to be as honest as possible in an age-appropriate way, and not to act like my life is perfect.”
The girls especially enjoy visits from Jessica’s foster son. When she brings him, the girls sign up to hold him and want to discuss adoption, foster care, and families. The girls have opened up much more in group sessions since Jessica started bringing him.
As for her physical disability, it hasn’t prevented her from being an incredible volunteer one bit. “I build my time around what I can physically do, and it’s been fine. It can be discouraging to think about how much more I could do without physical limitations, but I work on being content with showing up in the ways that I am able,” she says.
Middle School Charm
For Jessica, the acceptance and openness she sees in the girls is part of the charm of working with middle-school students.
“The transition from kid to teenager can be really hard, but I think it’s a really sweet age, and they’re quite innocent, open, and kind,” she reflects. “We color a lot, which makes it easier to talk for many of them. It can be funny how developmentally all over the place they are—some are well into puberty while others are telling me ‘Did you know at my house I have 120 crayons?’”
When Jessica tells friends about her experience as a volunteer, many tell her they could never do it, they wouldn’t know how to act or what to say. True to form, Jessica is honest with them: “I say yes, it can be hard, but it’s worth it. Lots of the best things in life can be uncomfortable but are worth it in the long run.”
What’s Next for Our Volunteer of the Year?
For Jessica, the best part of being an Oakland School Volunteer has been the girls in her group, though she’s enjoyed working with UPA teachers and Volunteer Program Coordinator Lilly Smith at the Ed Fund.
One happy surprise is that her social work program offers an option to be a counsellor intern at a public school, and she will start as a social work intern at Bret Harte Middle School this fall. Without a doubt, she’s found her place in the Oakland community.
Ready to join Jessica and hundreds of other Oakland School Volunteers? We’d love to help you find the right fit—click here to get started!
If you’d like to make your own Volunteer Voice heard, please email Oakland School Volunteers Program Coordinator Lilly Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org).