Extra Help

School volunteer supports teachers and kids

By Jessica Laskey
July 2024

If you need something cleaned, ask Nana Mary. Need something cut or copied, ask Nana Mary. Something fixed, laminated or drilled, ask Nana Mary.

Pretty much anything at all, ask Nana Mary.

Mary Bennick—everyone calls her Nana Mary—has volunteered at Theodore Judah Elementary School in East Sacramento for nearly 10 years. She arrived when granddaughter Lillian began transitional kindergarten.

After volunteering at Lillian’s preschool, Bennick decided to continue “helping wrangle kiddos, end-of-the-day cleanup, whatever was needed” at Judah.

She followed Lillian through grades, helping in kindergarten, first and second. Eventually, Bennick realized the greatest needs were in TK and kindergarten. She returned to those classrooms, much to the relief of staff.

“She has been such a great help to our kindergarten team,” says Holly Hein, a Theodore Judah kindergarten teacher and Nana Mary fan.

“She helps with being extra eyes outside, helping with recess. She goes on all of our field trips. She also works in my class in the morning and has really helped my kids come so far this year in reading.

“During COVID, I had to create packets for the kids, so Nana Mary helped me create them and collect and prepare stuff. She’s also super creative and comes up with great ideas. She’s always supporting me and the kids and helping us get all of the jobs done.”

She never worked in education, but Bennick is a natural with youngsters.

“It gets me out of the bed in the morning and gets me going,” says Bennick, who retired after 30 years with the phone company when her daughter announced she was pregnant with Lillian in 2010. “Being there with the kids, they keep me alive. I’m 72.”

Bennick starts her day as TK and kindergarten greeter, a ritual from the pandemic when the school didn’t allow parents to walk kids into the classroom.

Next, she moves inside, organizing, cleaning and doing odd jobs. Then she heads outdoors for recess, where she watches children for at least an hour, so teachers have time to “take a break, go potty and just breathe.”

Once the school day ends, Bennick sticks around for lunch with the kindergarten teachers and preps for the next day and special events. She tends to the student garden, waters plants and takes on extra projects, such as fixing up a wooden bench and hanging classroom curtains.

“I’m naturally handy, I got that from my dad,” Bennick says. “I take my tools to school so I can fix minor stuff.”
Bennick encourages other grandparents and people with extra time to volunteer in the classroom, especially TK and kindergarten.

“It’s so rewarding and so easy to do,” Bennick says. “When I started working here, I saw how hard the teachers work. They do everything—all the personalities they have to deal with, and the kids, too. I’m so in awe of the teachers, that’s why I continue to do it. I feel like they need that little bit of extra help.”

That extra help is deeply appreciated. “She’s definitely my right-hand gal,” Hein says.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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