Deborah Reames is a recipient of the San Francisco Education Fund’s 2016-17 Distinguished Service Award.

“I’m going to read to you about a real live woman who ended up running a lighthouse.”

Deborah Reames, a volunteer at Junipero Elementary School, waited for second-grade children to settle in as she introduced the story of famed-lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Just as she started to read, she paused to ask children whether they think they’d want to live in a lighthouse. The students yelled out a chorus of “Yes’s” and “No’s,” and she took time to call on each student to hear more.

“Yes,” one said, because there’d be “no parents!”

“I would like to live there because I would get a good view of the ocean,” another said.

“I would like to live there because there are a lot of lights, and I am scared when it’s dark,” one said.

This level of attention, patience and care that Deborah provides to each and every student is part of what makes her an outstanding volunteer, staff at the school said.

“She is super, super dedicated,” said Eve Cheung, the principal of Junipero Serra Elementary. “She’s dedicated to the students that she’s working with, and she loves the school. She puts her all into helping us.”

Along with tutoring students in the San Francisco Education Fund’s Literacy Program and reading aloud to a classroom once a month, Deborah encourages students to love science and sustainability. She fundraised over $6,000 from her personal networks to bring more environmental and science education to students at the school. Students are now learning about ecology and animal life through field trips and live presentations in their classrooms.

Without Deborah, “we would not have such a rich extracurricular or extended program for our kids,” Principal Cheung said.

Deborah also helped make possible the school’s first-ever career day in 2016. She invited speakers, including a TV cameraman, a chef, mounted patrol officers, scientists and more.

“I think it’s important to inspire the kids to believe they can do whatever they want to do and expose them to ideas of what other people do,” Deborah said.

Deborah’s dedication to making the world a better place is something that came naturally from a young age. As a teen, Deborah devised her San Leandro high school’s first-ever recycling system. She became a nonprofit environmental lawyer and spent 36 years litigating until her retirement in 2012.

Not content to take a complete break, Deborah signed on to our Literacy Program a year later, because she felt motivated to help young students learn to improve their writing skills. She saw some “horrible” writing in the field of law, she said, and “came to realize the critical importance of good writing in nearly every profession.”

Volunteers in our literacy program typically work with two children, but Deborah spends additional time tutoring and mentoring three more students. And through her literacy volunteering, Deborah has helped students improve their confidence not only in reading, but in classroom participation.

“One of the students who has been working with her was not really enthusiastic in general in class, but just in the past month and a half he’s reading more,” said Ms. Dara Peters, who teaches 2nd grade. “He’s offering answers more in class, he’s writing more… I’ve noticed him raising his hand and being a lot more engaged.”

The moments when she sees students reach their full potential are the most rewarding, Deborah said.

“I enjoy watching their reading improve or their writing improve and the interaction I get with the kids,” Deborah said. “It’s exciting when they get excited about learning something, and knowing that I’m contributing to an important cause.”

For every read-aloud she does, Deborah comes prepared, just as she did for the Women’s History Month event.

“She definitely knows the topic and theme, and she picks a book ahead of time,” Ms. Peters said. “She brings fluency resources and games that are her own.”

“The kids are showing tremendous growth,” Principal Cheung added. “Many of our kids just need that individual help and someone to talk to and to develop a strong relationship with, and she certainly does that.”

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

George Cruys, who volunteers at the Chinese Education Center

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

Mark Freeman, a recipient of our first Lifetime Service Award, who volunteers at Aptos Middle School and has dedicated more than 20 years of service