Good Samaritans: Children Rising’s volunteers and deeds help students in need 

By Children Rising | June 6th,2008

FIVE YEARS AGO, Emerson Elementary School in Oakland had no library.

Yes, it had a room that was designated as the library. But the books were hopelessly out of date, some going back to the 1950s.

And they were packed away in boxes and crates amidst piles of old furniture, so the children couldn’t access them even if they wanted to.

Then, one day, some Good Samaritans showed up.

“We cleaned out the room, started a digital catalog and began inventorying the books,” said Dave Hendsch, who lives in Rockridge. “And that was just the beginning.”

Working with the Oakland Kiwanis Club and First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, they raised enough money to hire a librarian and stock the library with good books. They taught the kids how to use the library and began tutoring them in reading skills.

And they’re still there today, helping in whatever way the school needs, including fighting truancy with a monthly raffle in which every child with a perfect attendance record for the previous month has a chance to win a brand-new bicycle.

“And they’ve absolutely never been dictatorial or acted like they knew what we needed,” said Emerson Principal Wendi Caporicci. “They’re great listeners.”

“We’re not here to tell the school what to do,” Hensdsch said. “They tell us what they need, and we do our best to help.”

Caporicci said that help has made all the difference.

“When I first came here, there were quite a few challenges, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ All of a sudden, this fellow comes up to me, introduces himself and says, ‘Would you like any help?’

“Would I! I said I’d like to see the library brought back to being a library again. And that’s exactly what they did!”

These Good Samaritans are volunteers from Children Rising, an Oakland-based program that enlists churches and other local organizations to support some of the neediest public schools in Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, Richmond and San Pablo.

“We’re not just trying to find individuals, we’re looking for pools of support to leverage our impact,” said president Randy Roth. “A congregation is one such pool.”

Currently, Children Rising volunteers are serving at 25 elementary and two middle schools.

Among the tutors are: Piedmonters Maureen McNabb and Jan Zovickian, who tutor at Lakeview Elementary, Fritz Wooster, who tutors at Webster Academy, and Ben Schmidt, who tutors at Emerson Elementary; as well as Montclair residents Nancy Branagh, who tutors at Burckhalter Elementary, John “Jeff” McClain, who tutors at Webster Academy, and program director Carolyn Piraino, who tutors at both Laurel Elementary and Emerson Elementary.

They provide one-on-one tutoring in reading, writing and math.

They serve as playground monitors and classroom assistants, instill conflict resolution skills, help beautify the campus, teach the kids how to use checking and savings accounts and hold monthly teacher/staff appreciation lunches.

They distribute food every weekend to more than 700 children who otherwise might be going hungry until Monday.

They chaperone children on field trips to Santa Cruz, where many of them experience nature for the first time.

“Many of these kids have never seen the Bay Bridge, let alone a redwood tree,” Roth said.

There’s only one thing they won’t do: proselytize their religion.

“They have never discussed their faith at all, never,” Caporicci said. “Their only agenda is to help us.”

Not all the participants in Children Rising are religious groups. Secular organizations, including Windermere Properties, the National Charity League and the Hillcrest PTA, also provide volunteers. Roth calls it “common grace.”

“There are many, many caring people in the world, regardless of whether they identify themselves as ‘religious’,” he said. “Besides, it makes it more interesting when church folks rub shoulders with those who may not share their spiritual connection. Inevitably, we discover that we have more in common than we might have guessed.”

Before he founded Children Rising in 2001, Roth, an ordained minister, was senior pastor of First Covenant Church on Redwood Road in the Oakland hills for 13 years.

“I was feeling restless, knowing that we were not serving the flatlands,” he said. “All those children were slipping through the cracks.”

In 2000, he attended a state-of-the schools report at Mills College by Dennis Chaconas, then the Oakland schools superintendent, who urged the clergy to adopt a neighborhood school.

“I wondered, ‘What it would look like if we took him up on that, and it was more than just an annual campus cleanup event?’ Roth said. “Having been around the block, I realized it would have to be collaborative, and someone would have to build the infrastructure so it would be meaningful and not just window dressing.”

But still he hesitated. Then, while flying home from Chicago with his wife, a sentence in a book he was reading leaped out at him: “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.”

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘I think it’s time.'”

The next day, he handed in his resignation as minister. That was the last day in June 2001. One month later, he had assembled a board of directors and incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit.

The month after that, he sat down with Roberta Teller, principal at Burbank Elementary School in Oakland.

“She took a flyer on us,” he said. “She introduced herself and said she was Jewish. Then she added, ‘I just want my school to be a safe place.'”

Burbank became Children Rising’s first adopted school.

Children Rising is funded by private donations, but Roth refuses to solicit people for contributions.

“I never ask for money. I don’t want to be selling something. Having been a pastor all those years, I never liked people knocking on my door asking for money. So we operate by word of mouth, instead.”

“We would have nothing without Children Rising,” said Mary Taylor, a third-grade teacher at Emerson. “Everywhere we look reflects their kindness and generosity.”