Rachel Hickey, 61, brought to her professional career in juvenile hall, and later to her volunteer job mentoring youth for whom mainstream schools didn't work, a middle-class background that had little in common with her young charges.

She didn't need it.

"Young people can really sense when a person is real and when a person is uncomfortable or a little bit hesitant with them. Rachel is not," said Cathi Andrade, who was education coordinator at YouthBuild, the Santa Rosa vocational school where Hickey volunteered last year.

"She just dives in. She takes the time to talk to them, to find out about them, she asks about their families and she remembers everything, which is huge," Andrade said. "Because that's what youth want. They want to be remembered. They want to be asked how their little sister is doing."

YouthBuild was forced to close for lack of funding but has reopened in the South Park Youth Center as John Muir Charter/Youth Connections, and Hickey is lined up to volunteer in a similar capacity.

"I just have a love for children and a love for teenagers," said Hickey, who retired three years ago after working 20 years as a counselor at Sonoma County's juvenile hall, a job she rose into from a volunteer position.

"I just have a desire to help each child, and I just try to be a role model for them," she said. "I just try to be in their shoes for a while and encourage them, to figure out where they're coming from," she said.

The young people Hickey will be working with at John Muir Charter/Youth Connections are age 16 to 23. About 75 percent are female. Some are parents already. For one reason or another, they didn't get high school diplomas.

"They just need, really, love. Love and concern and communication, someone to talk to," she said.

When they run into difficulty she tells them, "Just stay with it. With my assistance, we'll get through this, and if you need more help, I'll be there."

Connections will be forged, said Andrade, the new school's sole teacher.

"Even the toughest kids and the most difficult-to reach-kids are willing to give her a chance because she's just so genuinely nice," Andrade said.

As she waits for her assignment to start, Hickey's plate is hardly empty.

She volunteers several times a month at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, ushering and helping run the food concession.

"Sometimes it's pretty high-stress," she said of the food concession.

Hickey also volunteers with nonprofit Catholic Charities, helping people with Alzheimer's and dementia "get through the day" by serving them lunch, dancing with them, doing crafts and chatting — giving their caregivers a much-needed respite.

What does it all mean?

"Life is good," she said. "And a lot of housework doesn't get done on time."

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)