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Joan O’Neill worked tirelessly as a volunteer for the Madison Land Conservation Trust and the Scranton Library Friends, holding the position of president in both organizations and making significant contributions to land preservation and library funding. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Joan O’Neill shuns the spotlight.
An unassuming, soft-spoken woman, she prefers to stay in the background and let others take the attention and the credit. But what people close to her know is that she works with a tenacity and firmness of purpose that impress many.
She volunteered in two organizations and made significant contributions to each one: at the Scranton Library Friends, where she once served as the body’s president, and at the Madison Land Conservation Trust (MLCT), where she served in many roles, from newsletter editor to vice-president.
Joan says that her involvement with the MLCT stems from her love for nature, which in turn began during her years growing up with her parents and siblings on a farm in Fulton, a town in upstate New York not far from Lake Ontario.
“I was fortunate, but it was there that I learned to be independent and go off on my own. Even at night, in the woods, I loved it. That’s where I feel closest to the source of all things, to God, and to other things. It’s in the woods. There’s just so much beauty to be had,” she says.
That inclination to explore the outdoors was reinforced when she and her husband Ted lived for a time in Lenox, a town in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and then in Madison, where the yard of their first home backed against land trust property and gave her access to woods and the nature she loves.
According to its website www.madisonlandtrust.org, the MLCT is one of the oldest land trusts in the United States. A nonprofit organization with an all-volunteer board of directors, the land trust protects close to 1,700 acres of fragile and essential woodlands and wetlands throughout Madison.
The website also mentions the Neck River Uplands preserve, a 115-acre parcel from the largest land purchase in MLCT history—a purchase that Joan made possible. As the chair of the trust’s Land Acquisition Committee, she became an ardent supporter of the purchase and undertook an aggressive grant application program that brought in generous donations from the then-Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, as well as public and private donors.
Joan remembers the purchase as one of her major projects and says that the Neck River Uplands “were essential to protect, because they were a potential water supply. So that was essential for the town that that be preserved.”
Joan sees every grant application as a learning experience and a chance to gain knowledge, irrespective of the result. She recalls a particularly difficult application process with the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
“When I applied for a grant with the Greater New Haven Foundation, boy that was an uphill battle. I had to learn so much because I had to learn about demographics, and project completion, and goal setting, and stakeholders—in addition to developing all the conservation information for the project,” she recalls.
“One person in land trust said, ‘You’re never going to get this.’ Well, we got it,” she adds with a laugh.
She says that the MLCT aims “to preserve land with conservation value in perpetuity for the benefit of people and wildlife. But it’s becoming more and more important because of sustainability and future needs.”
Joan’s contributions to land preservation has been recognized by the MLTC in a web page titled “Honoring Joan O’Neill” that acknowledges her various roles and dedication to the cause. In addition, a moss-covered trail on the Neck River Uplands bears her name.
Still, another contribution she made is the annual Autumn Moonlight Walk, celebrating its 25th anniversary on Sunday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. The evening stroll on the Garvan Trail will include refreshments in the Surf Club building where Joan will be recognized for her many contributions to the MLCT.
Aside from preserving land, Joan is passionate about giving the youth the best learning opportunities, despite disabilities or shortcomings.
She believes she learned much from the preschool special education students she taught early in her career during her time in Massachusetts.
“I had a little boy who was autistic and had Tourette syndrome and some physical problems. He would string beads and the order in which he would string them was perfect for the spectrum,” she recalls.
Another time, she served the same boy some corn flakes, apologizing to him for not having Rice Krispies, which he fondly called “snap, crackle, pops.”
Without complaint or grumbling, he accepted the cereal, poured milk, and then pulled her close to the bowl telling her to listen—the corn flakes made the same crackling sound.
“I learned more from my students than they ever learned from me. I really did,” she says.
Her work in education led her to obtain dual masters degrees—a master’s in education and an M.S. in special education.
She also believes that a good library is a vital service for a town’s residents and youth. At Madison’s E.C. Scranton Library, the physical collection has grown to 116,000 items and serves a population of approximately 18,000. The Town of Madison annually provides 85 percent of the total operating budget of 1.4 million.
“I’m very committed to the library,” Joan says. “They do so much with so little, and they are going to need a lot of help.”
When she started with the Scranton Library Friends, the group had not established its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
By then she was used to filling out grant applications from her acquisition work with the land trust, so she decided to get the tax-exempt certification for the library friends as well.
“Well, you know I got used to paperwork,” she says lightheartedly.
Although Joan is no longer active with the library friends, her letter to the community from the friends group is still accessible on the library’s website: “I believe most of us think of our library as a ‘town’ facility, but the library is governed by a Board of Trustees who serve without remuneration. The town usually funds 85 percent of its budget, leaving an elusive 15 percent to be secured in other ways. Hence, the existence of the friends...I want to commend all who take part in keeping our library viable, especially taxpayers. You are Madison, a community where life and learning thrive.”
Even when she volunteers her time, Joan believes she gains from the experience and the people she helps. But there is no denying that she enjoys volunteering because she feels a duty to look beyond herself and work for the preservation of land, for the good of another person, and for the benefit of future generations.
“I would encourage (people) to volunteer and to do what’s necessary to ensure the future for our children,” she says.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that O'Neill served as president of the Madison Land Conservation Trust.
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