By Casey Hans
Volunteers are important to the Ann Arbor schools and each of them is as unique as the life experience they bring to the district.
Some are retirees who have time to devote, others are parents who want to spend time in their children’s learning environment and still others are residents who simply enjoy the classroom.
Take Simona Cucuiet, volunteering for the second year at Huron High School’s media center. Cucuiet is a former high school teacher and economist in Romania and last year spent 240 hours of her time volunteering at Huron after she and her husband, Peter, moved to the area.
Her time with the district seemed almost predestined. While searching for a volunteer opportunity after arriving in Ann Arbor, she stopped into the school district offices on State Street. A volunteer meeting was taking place just then and so, she stayed to learn more.
This year, Cucuiet’s volunteer time is more limited, as she has begun substitute teaching at Huron. So, she is spending between one to two days each week volunteering. She also is working to get her teaching certification and is considering going to college for a master’s degree, perhaps in library science.
“I’ve improved my English,” she said of her time volunteering in the building. “I’ve become a sub. I feel like I’m home here. I feel like part of the family.”
Lauren Hallinan Warren, the school librarian and media specialist at Huron, said Cucuiet’s time in the school has impacted her, the library staff and students. “She was perfect for us, a good fit,” Warren said. “She’s integrated herself well – she’s become part of the team. I can rely on her. We got better than we expected.”
Warren said Cucuiet has worked at the front circulation counter, shelved books and has even helped make some of the Romanian students feel comfortable as they use the media center.
Over at Dicken Elementary School, Lois Zimmerman is in her fourth year volunteering. She devoted 184 hours of volunteer service last year in the classroom and this year spends one day a week helping out in Sally Steward’s kindergarten room.
The retired kindergarten teacher tutored at Washtenaw Community College for a year when she moved to the area four years ago. But the elementary school setting appealed more to her. “I knew that I belonged with children,” she said. She assists one-on-one with students who need assistance on everything from writing to math.
“My effort is helping the children that don’t have the basic concepts,” she said. “It helps the teacher, it helps the children and it gives me something to do that I know I do well.”
In addition to her time at Dicken, Zimmerman also volunteers in the Ann Arbor area as a clown where she does magic tricks and is known as “Firefly the Clown.” Firefly visits Dicken kindergarteners each year as a treat, but Zimmerman said she is realistic with students about it all. “They always recognize my voice,” she said. “And I tell them there’s no such thing as magic. It’s just something they don’t understand.”
Zimmerman has four children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She enjoys reading, outdoor activities, is a member of the AAUW and is involved with her co-housing community in Scio Township. She said volunteering is something people should consider if they feel the desire.
“I wouldn’t put a ‘should’ to it,” she said. “If they love children and want to help, it’s a good way to do it.”
Steward called Zimmerman “phenomenal” in her approach. “She brings with her the background in education,” Steward said. “She is the warm, fuzzy grandma personality that the children can relate to.”
The Ann Arbor district has centrally coordinated its volunteers since 2005.
“We screen and place volunteers in buildings upon request,” said Norma McCuiston, coordinator for partnerships and projects. She said the district asks for a commitment of 16 weeks with a minimum of two hours each week.
“Most of our volunteers stay with us for the (school) year,” she added.
McCuiston said volunteers not only add diversity to the school environment, but they also bring an economic value. “If they weren’t volunteers, look at how much we’d have to pay,” she added.
Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. E-mail her or call 734-994-2090 ext. 51228.