OLD TOWN, Maine — At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re celebrating and honoring school staff and teachers by sharing their stories and highlighting their inspiring efforts amid the pandemic. Each day throughout #LoveSchoolStaff week, we will spotlight school staff members from around the state.
Tracey O'Connell has been a school counselor at Leonard Middle School in Old Town for almost 20 years. She goes above and beyond to provide much-needed stability to students. O'Connell wears many hats, including teaching students about civil rights, stereotypes, and suicide prevention, and peer relationships.
O'Connell said she has noticed kids are more isolated right now, and she is finding ways to keep them connected.
"I'm online all the time, like online all the time, calling parents, calling kids, more one-to-one things where I'm calling, calling, calling, or checking, checking, checking or re-checking," O'Connell said.
The school counselor was recently awarded the first-ever lifetime achievement award from the Maine School Counselors Association for her ongoing efforts. She was selected based on several criteria, including a positive impact on Maine students, on the profession of school counseling, and demonstrating leadership, advocacy, and professionalism.
Joey Porter is an eighth-grader at Leonard Middle School in Old Town. He said O'Connell's presence in school is felt by most students.
"She helps a lot of kids that have some sort of problems. They feel a little unsafe telling anybody else," Porter said. "I've had a lot of problems trying to keep myself controlled sometimes and I've had problems with other kids."
"I teach in the classrooms, I run small groups, I do friendship groups, I advocate for kids, I run the civil rights team, the Operation Breaking Stereotypes group. I'm the guiding club advisor, I help parents, I set up parent groups, [and I'm] the suicide prevention trainer for the district," O'Connell said.
All these roles support students and help them be happy and feel safe.
"I advocate for kids," she said. "We want to make sure that our kids are all safe, like school, and be the people they want to be."
"They know that they can come to her and there is going to be no judgment," said school principal Gert Nisin. "And she's always looking out on how can she make that connection with a kid, how can she support them."
O'Connell said students need a lot of support but many schools don't have enough community resources.
"We need more therapists, we need counselors, we have food insecurity, we have social justice concerns," she said.
"She is one of my favorite people in the school," Porter said.