Profiles of Youth Service Workers: Oneeka Benjamin

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Photos by Sara Hill

Oneeka Benjamin

Oneeka Benjamin is the K-5 site supervisor for the SCO Family of Services/Family Dynamics after-school program at P.S./I.S. 41 in Brooklyn, New York. She has been working with children since 1999. Benjamin wanted to be a lawyer who advocated for children, but while in college she worked at a nursery school as a teacher’s aide and liked working directly with children. She left college when she had her first child. After her second daughter was born, SCO Family of Services hired her as a group leader in 2013 and promoted her to program aide in 2015. She is now a site supervisor. OST Hub editor Sara Hill asked her a series of questions about her work.

Q: What did you learn that you wish you’d known from the start of your career as a youth worker?

A: What I learned is that with the training that you get with this job, and if you have a great boss, you can succeed no matter what you do. You can take it with you no matter where you go. Working with children you need patience and empathy. Some people can’t work with children, they say it’s too hectic. To me, it’s a pleasure, it’s exciting. You learn something new every day, every second, with this job. It brings joy to me. One thing I learned that I didn’t know when I first started is that there are children who needed to learn English, and you need to get additional training. When I was working with third-grade students, many were struggling with English, and I didn’t know what to do at first. I saw it as a challenge, and found ways to help them by using the other children in my group who knew English better to help them out. I also had the students draw their responses to stories instead of writing, which I discovered worked well. They began to add English words to their drawings as they learned. My supervisor knew I was dealing with ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] students, and sent me to an in-service course on working with English learners, and I picked up a lot of new activities.

Oneeka Benjamin at a professional development session with a colleague at her school.

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen?

A: That you can grow within the company itself, like I did from group leader to program director. I’ve seen changes in the children as well, from the time you first meet them, to how they grow and excel in different ways throughout the years.

Q: How have you handled those changes?

A: I handle them well because when you have all these children, you become like an extended family. You teach them things. For example, many of the kids have never been outside of the neighborhood. I recently brought a group to a pottery studio. The youth had no idea that something like this existed in their own neighborhood. As far as changes in my own career, when I was getting promotions, I was nervous because I don’t like paperwork, I didn’t know if I could do it. But I like a challenge, anything that will help me excel in learning I’m all for. I also had a lot of support while I was going through the changes, my supervisors and the professional development I received from the agency.

Q: How do you battle burnout, stay resilient?

A: Teamwork makes the dream work. It’s a fulfilling job, to me. To see the kids coming to you, talking to you and the silly things they do to make you laugh. The staff, we’re a crazy family, we laugh a lot. You have to laugh to make a good team.

Q: What are your dreams?

A: I want to go back to college in 2018 and finish. I want to go as far as I can go. My biggest obstacle to finishing college is child care. I’m a single mom, and my kids are 14 and 7. Leaving them alone while I’m at school at night is worrisome. I want to get a big house and keep working with children.

Q: What’s some advice you would give someone entering the field?

A: You have to have patience, empathy and passion. I’ve seen a lot of staff come and go. The pay is not the best, but if you love your job you can’t go wrong.