Born and raised in Watertown, Jane O’Connor has spread her work as an educator across the globe, and will receive an honor previously bestowed to Boston Police Commissioner William Evans and actor and peace and justice activist Martin Sheen.
After being principal in the Watertown Public Schools for 24 years – at Cunniff Elementary School and Watertown Middle School – O’Connor worked to help at risk students in Boston, and took part in starting a school for girls in rural Africa. Her work will be recognized by the Paulist Center Community, which will present her with the Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice at a ceremony in Boston on Saturday, Nov. 18.
A group from Boston was interested in setting up a school for girls in an area of Rwanda that was hard hit by the 1996 genocide, and invited O’Connor to be a part of the effort.
“I’ve been traveling back and fourth since they opened in 2008,” O’Connor said. “I am very proud of what we have accomplished there.”
The Maranyundo School educates girls in middle and high school in the town of Nyamata, located in the region of Bugesera. Education in Rwanda was devastated during the genocide, O’Connor said, when the country lost about 90 percent of its teachers. And education for girls has not been a priority.
“In this country, and many other African countries, if a family has money it is the boy who goes to school,” O’Connor said.
The school educates 440 girls, and when O’Connor went to Rwanda earlier this month she attended the school’s first high school graduation.
“Many complete six years there,” O’Connor said. “The school is strong in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). After the graduate hopefully they go on to college.”
She has always received help in her endeavors from people in Watertown.
“I have had a couple fund raisers, and I appreciate all the help I have received from people in the Watertown,” O’Connor said. “The community has come together several times for me when I have asked.”
On this trip, O’Connor went with several other women, including her one of her daughters, Erin Macomber, and Shannon Lawn, a member of the Watertown Housing Authority and wife of State Rep. John Lawn.
They brought with them clothing for the school, including sports uniforms and other clothing for the girls at the school. O’Connor said she got a “very good price” on the clothes from Paul DerBoghosian of Graphic Connections. They also brought toys and clothes for a nearby orphanage that was started by a Pennsylvania woman.
“There were seven of us on the trip and we brought 21 bags,” she said.
O’Connor also does work closer to home. She helped start the Mother Caroline Academy and Educational Center in Boston.
“It is a tuition free school in Dorchester, grades 4-8, for young women in the inner city,” O’Connor said. “It has a 100 percent graduation rate and most, about 90 percent, go on to college.”
When she received a call telling her that she was chosen to get the Isaac Hecker Award the award, O’Connor said she wasn’t sure if they had the right person. She is a member of the Paulist Center Community and she knew that the award goes to a Catholic person from somewhere in North America. See the list of prior recipients here.
“Past recipients are people whose name you would recognize, so it was quite a shock. Very humbling,” O’Connor said. “I don’t see myself as anyone special. I am someone who does what they can to help others.”