Unsung Hero: Max Tokarsky

Educator inspired to help Latino youth succeed

Max Tokarsky thought he was going to be an engineer when he left Oakwood High School for Ohio State University. But he changed his mind and found himself “floating around” at the large school.

At the same time, he noticed he was having an easy time in his Spanish classes while others seemed to be struggling, even though his junior and high school Spanish education was well past him. “I was actually good at it so I just kept up with it.”

Tokarsky, 31, whose mother is an immigrant from Thailand, was accustomed to being exposed to cultural experiences beyond traditional American and embraced Spanish. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Everything that goes along with culture and language and learning. It’s been ingrained in me from a young age to really appreciate diversity and cultural differences.”

It was his interest in other cultures that set the stage for Tokarsky’s work with Latino youth in Dayton — the reason his father, Frank Tokarsky, nominated him as a Dayton Daily News Unsung Hero.

While in college, Tokarsky worked with high school kids who needed English language help through Big Brothers Big Sisters. He also completed an internship with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. “Those experiences were really big influences for me to become a teacher and specifically, a language teacher.”

He received a certification to teach English as a foreign language and went to Thailand to work in 2007. When he returned, he landed a job as a Spanish teacher at Stivers School for the Arts. He started pursuing another certification in teaching English to speakers of other languages. During that time, he met he ESL administrator at Dayton Public Schools who introduced him to a young Latino man who allowed Tokarsky tutor him as part of the practicum experience required for the certification.

Expanding mentorship bond

Through that relationship, Tokarsky was introduced to El Puente Learning Center in 2011, a program developed by Tony Ortiz, Wright State University’s associate vice president for Latino affairs. El Puente is a program focused on helping children in kindergarten through sixth grade succeed in school. It is held at St. Mary’s Church on Xenia Avenue in Dayton.

Tokarsky met a group of younger boys who were at-risk and needed male mentorship. “We just kind of hit it off,” he said.

As El Puente grew, the group identified a need to expand the program for high schoolers. They didn’t want language or mentorship services to stop for the kids during that high-risk period.

“If they’re going to astray or get into bad things on the street, you just don’t want to stop the mentorship bonds,” Tokarsky said. “You want to continue them through high school and…show these kids that they have options. ”

A program for high schoolers, Camino de Vida, was created while Tokarsky was still volunteering with the group of boys at El Puente. “After I completed my practicum, I just kind of stayed around because the relationship was going so well with the young kids and I enjoyed them so much.”

‘An awesome job’

Tokarsky asked to take a leadership role with Camino de Vida and became the director while continuing to teach during the day. The group paid him a small amount, but Tokarsky said he did the work because he enjoyed working with the kids.

Frank Tokarsky said in his nomination that his son, “did everything to help these young students.” He helped with homework and counseled them. He called students when they didn’t go to school and picked them up to bring them to the program. He took them to hockey games or out for pizza and would help with teachers or principals if he knew of potential problems at school, the nomination said.

“He has often gone to court to assist students in trouble both as a mentor or translator…oftentimes asking the judge to make school attendance a part of any mitigation effort. Max has truly done a lot for an underserved and important population of young Latinos in the Dayton community,” Frank Tokarsky wrote.

Ortiz said Tokarsky did “an awesome job” while working with the students. Students showed up and none dropped out of school. “He had this connection with them,” he said. “He went way beyond his job.’

Tokarsky, Ortiz said, “Created a family atmosphere where the kids felt safe and they enjoyed coming around. He made sure the kids did what they had to do to stay in school and stay out of trouble.”

Helping Latino community

After three years as director, Tokarsky left to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology at the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology, where he is a second year student studying child psychology. He plans to focus his dissertation on immigrant populations and adolescents, “the same types of kids I’ve been working with.” He also is involved with student government’s diversity committee and represents the school for the National Association of School Psychologists. He has won awards from the League of United Latin American Citizens and has presented about the program on the national and state level.

Programs, such as El Puente and Camino de Vida, are crucial for the Latino community, Tokarsky said. The Latino population is the fastest growing in the country and programs, such as the Welcome Dayton initiative, shows immigrant groups that the city is open to them. The community, he said, needs to be prepared to welcome these groups in schools and with services. There’s a growing need for cultural and Spanish language competency. He has had “tons of jobs” since he graduated “just because I speak Spanish.”

“Teachers have to be prepared to work with diverse children. Community services have to meet their needs,” he said. “These kids, they have a special need set that people aren’t really — even their high school teachers or people they see in their every day lives — aren’t really hip to yet.

“Without these services, I really feel like they would just kind of be floating around.”

He continues to volunteer at El Puente as much as possible and still is in touch with the first group of students he met when he started volunteering. “They know if they need anything, they just have to text me or look me up on Facebook,” he said.

“I just love kids. The rewarding part comes when you see them. It’s…instantaneous gratification for what you’re doing. (There’s) nothing other than sharing your life experiences with another person. They, these kids, they’ve experienced a lot of life already. There’s no fooling them. They know when you’re there with a goodness of heart. They really appreciate it. I just enjoy spending time with them.”

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