Olga Rios looks too young to be a grandma, but that’s just what the kids at Portage Park Elementary call her when she volunteers at the school each week.
Mrs. Rios started volunteering when her grandson was placed in a special education classroom at the school for first grade. She asked the teacher if she could come in to assist him with the transition. While he soon settled into the daily routine in the classroom, Rios stayed on as a classroom helper, working with the special ed students as needed.
“I always say that it’s not ‘special ed;’ it’s ‘perfect ed!’ I love them all and treat them all the same. I would love to see more parents volunteer. When the students work one-on-one with helpers, it’s amazing how much more they pick up.”
“If parents do volunteer, they wait and hesitate about how they can help. Not so with Mrs. Rios. Teachers don’t have to give her tasks as she’s very innovative and simply looks around the room and finds something to do,” said Mrs. Marianne Moseley, assistant principal at Portage Park. “She is just a ball of energy! We are so appreciative that she has stayed on, even though her grandson now goes to another CPS school.”
The teachers just love having her here and appreciate her being their extra pair of hands and eyes in the classroom, especially if an aide is out sick,” continued Moseley. “She will come every day, and stay all day if needed. In fact, Mrs. Rios has spent so much time at our school that some employees would swear that she is on the payroll!”
When asked why she has chosen to continue to volunteer at Portage Park now that her grandson is no longer there, Rios quickly answered that it is the children who keep her at the school. “It’s easy to become attached to the kids, especially when you see that you are making a difference and that they really appreciate your being there – sometimes more so than my family does at home!” said Rios.
“To me, the kids are 14 additional grandchildren who I leave here at the end of the school day,” Rios explained. “Just looking at their faces is the best reward. I’ve had some health problems recently. When I’m home sick and then return to the class, they all run up to me and give me get-well cards they have made. It is really sweet,” she said.
“The kids think she comes with the classroom,” said Moseley. “But little do they know that she volunteers her time to them. If she’s not there, they get upset and ask, ‘Where is grandma?’ If she were to stop volunteering, the students would shed lots of tears because she is such a big part of their lives.”
Rios admits that she “does a bit of everything” in the school, including escorting the students to their Spanish classes and, as she is fluent in Spanish, helping them learn the language along with their teacher.
A lot of the time, Rios simply listens to what the students have to say. “They need a lot of listening. You can tell sometimes that no one is listening to them at home. But at school, with the help of teachers and volunteers, they feel like they are being heard.”
Besides her devotion to the children’s education, Rios applies her artistic abilities and creativity to designing bulletin boards for many of the teachers in the school. According to Moseley, she also has planned craft projects for classrooms and designed scenery and made costumes for the school play. She purchases all the supplies herself, with no assistance from the school.
“Mrs. Rios’ dedication to our school is tireless. She comes to school even during times of personal family crises and ill health – in fact, in one instance she returned to the school only two days following a surgery. That’s dedication, and I wish we had more like her,” Moseley added.
All in all, considering the joy that being a school volunteer brings to Rios’ life, how much the students love her, and the how much the teachers there appreciate her help, it appears that the arrangement is a win-win for all involved.
Portage Park Elementary School, 5330 W. Berteau Ave., is a Pre-Kindergarten - 8th grade elementary school that has served the Portage Park community for 93 years. The school serves a diverse population of nearly 1,200 students, and features bilingual instruction in Arabic, Polish, and Spanish as well as an ESL Program that serves students who speak more than 12 other languages. For more information about the school, visit http://www.portage.cps.k12.il.us/