Spotlights
FACE of the Week: Claire O’Neill, volunteer at Relay Elementary School
As part of BCPS’ commitment to ongoing Family And Community Engagement, the “FACE of the Week” is a new, regular feature of the BCPS website that introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS special – our volunteers and PTA members.
09/29/2015

Spotlight

When Claire O’Neill walked into Bonita Bahr’s kindergarten classroom a year ago in April, Bahr couldn’t get the notion out of her head that she’d seen this new volunteer to Relay Elementary School before.

"I know you from somewhere," she told O’Neill, who had retired from her longtime position as a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just three months earlier. It didn’t take long for the two women to figure it out: Bahr and O’Neill had played on the same women’s rec league softball team 30 years ago.

Now, the pair form another sort of team – three days a week, O’Neill assists Bahr as she teaches a vibrant and energetic kindergarten class at Relay. "She’s become invaluable," Bahr says of her old softball teammate. "And the kids love her."

The experience is just as rich for O’Neill, who volunteered at Relay through the county’s RSVP program.

"It’s just a ton of fun," says O’Neill, whose only other stint as a classroom volunteer came decades ago when she spent a day every week helping out in her son’s classrooms at Catonsville Elementary School. "It’s right, what they say; you definitely get more out of (volunteering) than you put in. I show up and just have a ball."

Classroom contributions

That much is evident watching O’Neill move about the classroom, where she laughs, listens, and gently supports children, all while under the direction of Bahr. In addition to assisting in the class, she also spends time each day copying, cutting, or collating classroom materials or preparing nibbles for children during snack time. "It gives the teachers a little break," she says.

O’Neill is also efficient at what she does; there’s little wasted motion, or emotion. That business-beneath-the-fun behavior may harken to her career as a project manager and civil engineer with the Corps of Engineers. A graduate of both Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities, and a self-proclaimed "Navy brat" raised in northern Virginia and Baltimore, she can be both direct and warm – a winning combination in a kindergarten classroom.

"Being a retired engineer, she brings a strong STEM background to our students," Bahr says, speaking of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines so important to preparing students for a 21st century marketplace. "Besides the extra pair of hands, she has that extra knowledge that she uses to help students.

"That, and she’s become a really good friend," Bahr adds.

Her contributions and those of other volunteers at Relay have made a positive impact throughout the school, says Principal Lisa Dingle. "Volunteers like Claire contribute to the success of all students," she says. "The administrative team and teachers truly value and welcome the support of all of our volunteers."

As for O’Neill, "I appreciate her enthusiasm," Dingle adds. "She is reliable, and the children adore her."

Taking the plunge

O’Neill decided to volunteer at Relay for the simple fact that the school was closest to her home in south Catonsville, and she had made the same decision earlier in life. She volunteered one day a week when her son was at Catonsville Elementary School years ago because she enjoyed children and because it piqued her curiosity.

"School was a mystery to me as a parent. ‘What are they doing with our kids for seven hours a day?’ I used to ask myself. Volunteering was a great way to find out," she says.

Decades later as she planned her retirement, she thought she might enjoy tutoring students. But seeing an ad in The Catonsville Times for the county’s RSVP program, she found her route to Relay. "I really felt I wanted to get back to the classroom," she says. With the encouragement of a friend who volunteers at a city elementary school, she took the plunge.

The RSVP program has been especially beneficial; called the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, it’s a partnership between BCPS and the Baltimore County Department of Aging that offers incentives for seniors age 55 and over who sign up to volunteer in the county’s schools. Benefits include free supplemental liability insurance to cover volunteer work and eligibility to join the Baltimore County Credit Union.

FACE of the Week - Claire O'Neill of Relay ES

O’Neill says the most rewarding part of the work has been seeing the progress made by students, and doing it on her own time. "As a retired person, you have a wide-open schedule, and this gives me a little bit of a fixed schedule to work around," she says.

Once, she recalls, she worked with a young student who struggled in reading. She asked the child to recite the names of months, knowing the months were spelled out on the wall behind her. "This little girl starts to sound out the words, little by little," O’Neill says, smiling and momentarily lost in the memory, "and I think to myself, ‘Oh my God, she gets it! She’s doing the phonics herself!’"

"It was wonderful. What these teachers can do in a year is amazing."

To learn more about volunteering in BCPS, visit www.bcps.org/community/volunteer_info/.  For more about the RSVP program, visit www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/aging/volunteer/rsvp.html.

For more photos, visit the BCPS Flickr site at www.flickr.com/photos/bcps/albums/72157656890649884.

Story and photos by Charles Herndon, specialist, BCPS Family and Community Engagement.
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