Mark Freeman is a recipient of the San Francisco Education Fund’s 2016-17 Lifetime Service Award.

Many of us know middle school can be a tough time. Kids are caught between childhood and adolescence, and the move away from a familiar school and well-known friends can be tumultuous at best. But if you’re at Aptos Middle School, volunteer Mark Freeman is there to help.

As part of the TGIF club, a Friday lunchtime group Mark started, students who might not belong to a particular social group at school can visit the library and enjoy the company of a volunteer and fellow students. Not to mention shelves full of books.

“He invites them into the library and to be with the TGIF club,” said teacher librarian Lisa Bishop, who has worked with Mark since he started volunteering 20 years ago. “After lunch, he finds individual students and hooks them up with great books and follows up with them after.”

During a recent visit, Mark chatted with one of the students about books she enjoys reading. They headed right to the fantasy book section, where they thumbed through titles from Neil Gaiman. “You would love Neil Gaiman,” he said.

They grabbed a book and sat down in a corner of the library. As they discussed the novel, another student walked up and noticed what they were reading. Mark seized this opportunity to make an introduction.

“Do you two know each other?” Mark asked. The pair shook their heads. “You two should meet, because you two probably read the most out of everyone,” he said. As the other girl walked away, Mark suggested that his student hang out with her some time.

Mark might have a gift for helping students make friends through books and movies, but he wasn’t always excited about the idea of volunteering in a middle school.

He started as a volunteer in Ms. Bishop’s classroom at Paul Revere Elementary School in 1997, and as a nurse practitioner who also frequently interacted with children, working with kids came naturally. But when Ms. Bishop took at position at Aptos Middle School, he had some trepidation about going with her.

“I was dreading it because middle school was not a happy time for me,” Mark said. “It was really miserable. Kids can be mean. And they’re trying to give an image and have complete confidence when they don’t really have it yet.”

But he wasn’t about to leave Ms. Bishop.

“[I was] a classroom teacher for 10 years prior to being a teacher librarian, and he taught my students how to do cooking with fractions, how to use sharp knives, how to not be afraid of trying different foods, take risks. He accompanied us on every fieldtrip.” Ms. Bishop said.

Along with their partnership in the classroom, Mark and Ms. Bishop live in the same neighborhood and have become close friends.

“We have eaten lunch with each other more than we have with our own spouses,” Lisa said. “We go to movies together, I bring him food, he brings me food, we cook together.”

So, Mark made the leap. Now, he helps kids who, like him, might not find it easy to fit in.

“It tries to be a group for kids that don’t have a group,” Mark said. “That’s what I was looking for and that’s probably what most kids that age are looking for.”

After taking a look at books together and discussing the three novels she was already reading, Mark and his student worked on a craft project. When the bell rang to signal the end of lunch, Mark said to her, “Good to work with you.”

“If you think back to elementary and middle school, you’ll probably remember that one adult who noticed you and took you seriously,” Mark said. “If I can be that adult, even just once a week, that’s rewarding.”

Read about the other recipients of the 2016-17 Distinguished Service Awards:

Deborah Reames, who volunteers in the Education Fund’s Literacy Program at Junipero Serra Elementary

George Cruys, who volunteers at the Chinese Education Center

Xoom, a Circle the Schools company partner at Junipero Serra Elementary