Head of the Class: Abby O'Neill
It might look like a typical day for Abby O'Neill's third grade class at Fire Lake Elementary School, but as students and teachers approach their holiday break, they know the last few weeks have been anything but typical.
“During the earthquake our sprinkler system came down [through the ceiling] so it set off the fire alarms and we had to evacuate [the school]," O'Neill said. "We spent some time at [MacDonald Memorial Ice Center] and on school buses too. It was a long day.”
That was Nov. 30, when south central Alaska was rocked by a 7.0 earthquake.
Over a week and roughly one million dollars later, Fire Lake in Eagle River was patched up and ready to open it's doors. The school still shows signs of damage, including a music room which cannot yet be occupied.
O'Neill and her fellow teachers were able to act quick after the quake, reaching out to parents and families of their students via an electronic application. She was concerned for her students' needs at home and a few families were dealing with severe damage.
"We must have collected over $500 in cash and gift cards, lots of clothes and winter gear, things that could get families on their feet quickly," O'Neill said. "We have another family that lost their house in a fire a few weeks ago, so they were moving into a rental this week. Lots of challenges all around.”
O'Neill said she was also concerned with how she'd welcome her students back to class, understanding that her role as an educator extends well beyond the walls of Fire Lake.
“We did bring stuffed animals the first day back, a lot of teachers did that because we know it’s scary," she said. "[Coming back to school] was the first time they’ve been apart from their families after such a big event. A lot of us weren’t necessarily ready to be back on stage doing the teaching thing, but each and every one of us wanted to know that our [students and their families] were okay.”
O'Neill said she was able to maintain a sense of normal and cope with the earthquake by having students write to very special pen pals.
“It’s kind of nice they can connect with their pen pals and say, 'what was it like during the 64 earthquake,'" she said. "This is what [the earthquake] was like for me. Now they have that common ground too.”
O'Neill's students will have learned many lessons come the end of this school year. The importance of taking care of each other may be at the top of the list, a lesson that she teaches everyday just leading by example.
“We have a motto in our class that you’re either being helpful or hurtful and you always have a choice," O'Neill said. "So are you being helpful in your day? Are you keeping people form being distracted? What are you doing in the classroom to help others?"
Proud of her students and proud to be a part of the Eagle River community, Abby O'Neill is pretty outstanding herself, continuing to support students and their families as a community and a school continue to rebuild.
"I think that aside from academics they need to learn [kindness] as people," O'Neill said. "There’s always a choice to be helpful and kind — most of them are outstanding at it.”
Mrs. O'Neill is KTVA 11's Head of the Class.
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