Prepping early learners for their journey to kindergarten and beyond, Kelly O’Connor doesn’t see herself bound to a job, but committed to a mission.
“I love to see them go off with a love of learning,” says O’Connor, who for the past five years has been director of the YMCA of South Collier (Marco Y) Early Learning Program. “I get down to their level… I become a kid with them. I don’t sit up there and blah, blah, and they end up excited about going on to K.”
That approach hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In 2018, O’Connor was named as a “Southwest Florida Star” by the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, which recognizes the “hard work and dedication of childcare providers in our area.”
To be eligible for the recognition—O’Connor was modestly quick to point out that it wasn’t an award—she had submitted evidence and documents reflecting the quality of the care offered to YMCA’s early learners.
Prior to her hiring close to a decade ago—she had moved here from Westchester County, NY, to be with her aging parents “and best friends”—O’Connor had 23 years’ experience working with special needs kids at St. Agnes Rehabilitation Center in New York.
Through the years, she worked with children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Spine Bifida, Autism, Down’s Syndrome and Paraplegic youngsters.
Significantly, Bronx-born O’Connor wasn’t much more of a kid herself when she volunteered for a church program to help kids from homeless families— she was 14 at the time.
“I would go after school and help take care of the kids so their parents could go out and look for jobs,” she says. “They were very poor—I saw a lot of misery. But I liked helping them out and doing whatever I could for the families. We gave them clothes and cooked for them. We wanted to see them smile. They were from all races.”
A couple of years ago, O’Connor fulfilled one of her own goals by going back to school and securing a Bachelor’s Degree that included business and administration. Cindy Love-Abounader, the Y’s CEO, paid tribute to this achievement, and to O’Connor as a professional.
“Kelly has been a great leader for our early learning program for over 8 years,” Love-Abounader said. “ She has a 4-year degree with many certifications related to her field. She provides a quality experience for children and parents that focus on building relationships that gear to the individual child’s needs. Our program has high standards due to Kelly’s commitment and dedication to families and children.”
O’Connor, who is married with two 16-year-old children, expressed similar sentiments to previous Y staffers featured in this series of profiles.
“I love being here. The children are like my family. They need me,” she says, adding that it’s rewarding to spot potential even at their young ages. “One boy, for example, is definitely going to be an engineer. The way he builds things and designs is incredible.”
Also rewarding is that the youngsters she first started out with 8 years ago as a regular teacher in the program, are now flourishing in middle school.
“I still see them. They come say hi to me, which is awesome. And I still connect with the families to find out how they’re all doing.”
For more on the Y’s wide variety of programs and activities for adults and children, visit marcoymca.org or call 239-394-9622. Follow on Twitter at ymcamarco, on Facebook at marcoymca, and Instagram at ymcamarco.