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Kelly O'Connor: Early learning program director's job is her mission

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Kelly O'Connor poses earlier this week with some of her young early learning (pre-K) children.

You could compare Kelly O'Connor to a mother hen as she ushers her "baby chicks" through the Early Learning Program at the YMCA of South Collier (Marco Y).

"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 program.

"I get down to their level ... I become a kid with them," she says. "I don't sit up there and blah, blah, and they end up excited about going on to K."

Working out in the fitness room for the past three months during her lunch break, O'Connor has lost more than 40 pounds.

Prepping these early learners for their journey to kindergarten and beyond, O'Connor doesn't see herself bound to a job, but committed to a mission.

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 child care providers in our area."

More:Charlene Rose: Focusing on the Y mission

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 Y 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.

Down the years she worked with children with attention deficit disorder, spine bifida, autism, Down's syndrome and paraplegic youngsters, for example.

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.

More:Stephanie Pepper: In it to help Marco's youth

"I would go after school (she was 14 at the time) 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 four 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.

More:Coach Kamal Farhat: Blending swimming success with an academic undercurrent

"Our program has high standards due to Kelly’s commitment and dedication to families and children.

O'Connor, who is married with two children aged 16, 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 eight 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."

More:Summer camps underway at YMCA

For more on the Y's wide variety of programs and activities for adults and children, visit marcoymca.org or call 394-YMCA (9622). Follow on Twitter at ymcamarco; on Facebook @marcoymca, and Instagram at ymcamarco.