July 17, 2019  |  

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Her subjects may range from a tropical island to a seedy back alley, but what’s consistent in Verna O’Donnell’s work is that it helps her students tell a story. A paraeducator at John Winthrop Middle School, Verna is a volunteer set painter for stage productions at both the middle and high schools. Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

Her subjects may range from a tropical island to a seedy back alley, but what’s consistent in Verna O’Donnell’s work is that it helps her students tell a story. A paraeducator at John Winthrop Middle School, Verna is a volunteer set painter for stage productions at both the middle and high schools. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Verna 0’Donnell: Going Home Again

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Verna O’Donnell has a question: “Who says you can’t go home again?” That’s because Verna has, both to John Winthrop Middle School and Valley Regional High School. This time, however, there is a difference. She is no longer a student but a paraeducator at Valley Regional, as well as a committed volunteer helping paint sets for the upcoming spring musical, Once on This Island, at John Winthrop on Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30 at 7 p.m.

According to Laura Traver, the music teacher at John Winthrop and the play’s director along with co-director Brendan Calamaro, some 65 middle school students are involved in the production, which they have been rehearsing regularly since last November.

“People go to the musical and they can’t believe how good the kids are,” Verna says.

This year’s play has a special connection to this area. It takes place on a Caribbean island in the French Antilles, and, though the actual site is never named, it is clearly Haiti. Jenifer Grant and Patty Hurley of Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH), the organization that has raised sufficient funds to build a library in Deschapelles, Haiti, came and talked to the cast about Haiti and the projects SCEH has undertaken there. As a result, the cast decided to donate all the money from the concessions run during the play to SCEH.

Verna, who has done scenery for the middle school play for 10 years, is responsible for designing and painting, with parent volunteers, most of the movable set pieces for the different scenes in the play. The backdrop at the rear of the stage is rented equipment. Verna discusses with Traver what pieces they want, what colors should be incorporated, and then does a design. She uses an overhead projector to focus the drawing on the surfaces that will be painted to make it easy to follow the design.

For some 12 years, Verna had a particular responsibility within the Regional District 4 school system. She is a Braille transcriptionist who worked with a blind student from elementary school through graduation from high school. Her connection to the student began when the child was at CDE nursery school where Verna worked part time. She followed the student to Deep River Elementary school, studying Braille from a thick binder of lessons she was given, with periodic meetings with an instructor for the proper state certification.

“It [Braille] is really not that complicated. It only seems that way to us. Once you learn to read with your fingertips, it’s really no big deal,” she says.

Verna had to work closely with classroom teachers.

“Every piece of print, everything the student needed to read, had to be transcribed into Braille,” she explains.

She not only transcribed class material, but on her own initiative made posters and art work to help the blind student understand things she would never see. On one occasion to illustrate a humorous poem about raining cats and dogs but not stepping in a poodle, she attached hanging cat and dogs to rain clouds, and used puff paint to make poodle. Another time, to demonstrate how the rotation of the earth around the sun created night and day, she set up a model of the rotating earth shining a flashlight to show sunlight. The student couldn’t see the flashlight but she could feel the warmth of its rays.

Returning from a trip to Ireland, Verna used different kinds of cloth to simulate the hills and scenery through which she had traveled. The blind student could feel the difference in the textures of the material; since all the cloth was shades of green, sighted students could see what the landscape of Ireland looked like.

Verna’s efforts to make the world come alive for her student earned her an award for excellence from the State of Connecticut.

The blind student has since graduated from Valley Regional, but having been with her class since elementary school, Verna now refers to all of them as her babies.

“I’m still in touch with some of them,” she says.

Now, Verna works as a paraeducator at Valley Regional helping students with a variety of educational needs to focus on effective learning. She is assigned to different classrooms, often biology and health classes. For the first time this year she is assigned to a class in her own field, photography, which she studied after graduation from Valley Regional.

Her love for photography started in high school when she was given a camera for a summer trip to Europe led by a Valley Regional teacher. Now, she particularly loves to photograph wildlife, but she admits that poses particular difficulties.

“Wildlife has no schedule,” she says.

Verna’s connection with Valley Regional extends to her family as well. Her father Charlie O’Donnell, now retired, was for many years a guidance counselor at the school. Her mother Sam was instrumental in the founding of the Essex Ambulance Service. The 2017-’18 Essex Town Report is dedicated to Charlie and Sam O’Donnell. Verna herself now lives in Deep River.

In addition to her duties as a paraeducator, for the last five years Verna, as part of her school responsibilities at Valley Regional, also supervises the student set construction crew for the schools’ annual musical, just presented in mid-March.

Beyond those responsibilities, Verna is the yearbook advisor and also a coach for unified sports program that blends students with various kinds of challenges with other students in games like basketball. Often, she says, the players deliberately give the ball to one of the challenged participants rather than taking the shot.

“It’s all about the joy of sportsmanship,” Verna says.

From November to March, with the musicals at both schools, Verna admits she has a full schedule. But even after the plays are over, there is still an important event on her calendar. As an advisor to the current junior class at Valley Regional, she will attend one of the iconic high school events: the junior prom. What was that about not going home?

Once on This Island

The musical Once on This Island comes to the John Winthrop Middle School, 1 Winthrop Road, Deep River, on Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30 at 7 p.m. For tickets, call 860-526-9546.

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