CSSJ awards Erin O’Neill Volunteer of the Month

O’Neill teaches a student how to make nutritious meals. Photo courtesy of Victoria Gaffney.

By Lauren Trumbull

Editorial and Features Editor

“I never thought I’d be volunteering now more than I go to class, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said senior criminal justice major, psychology minor and this issues Center for Service and Social Justice (CSSJ) Volunteer of the Month, Erin O’Neill.

O’Neill began her extensive work in service her sophomore year when her and her friends wanted to bring Greek life to DeSales. Together they discovered Alpha Pi Omega (APO), a coed service fraternity. She is now the vice president of fellowship for APO and plans bonding events.

“Alpha Pi Omega’s three core principles are leadership, fellowship and service, so being able to plan events for my brothers is one of my favorite things to do,” said O’Neill.

Through APO, she’s had the chance to volunteer for other organizations such as Allentown Rescue Mission, Miracle League and Victory House, as well as run numerous clothing and food drives.

From there, O’Neill started working with Victoria Gaffney, AmeriCorps VISTA, and wanted to get involved with the work Gaffney does at Raub Middle School.

“Erin has been doing amazing things at Raub that deserves to be recognized. Erin started working for Mr. Armbuster’s class of autistic students on a whim I set up during Raub’s Open House. I had no idea Erin would take on this project with such passion and creativity,” said Gaffney.

At Raub, O’Neill is in charge of Mr. Armbuster’s class.

“I teach them lifestyle skills such as shopping on a budget, hygiene, cooking and how to act in social situations,” said O’Neill.

She started volunteering there last semester once a week, but soon fell in love with the class and wanted to volunteer more. Now she goes to Raub every Tuesday and Thursday morning from the start of their school day until noon.

“Now my students are all I think about. My class has nine boys, each of them fall on different ends of the spectrum. A few of them have additional co-morbid diseases on top of their autism, which can be challenging at times, but my students never see their disabilities as an obstacle,” said O’Neill.

Every week O’Neill works on cooking with the kids, many of which have sensory issues, which means they do not eat certain foods because of texture, smell or color. “My goal is to teach them how to make healthier versions of what they enjoy eating like pizza, chicken nuggets, nachos, etc.

“My goal at the end of the year is to send them home with a cookbook for their parents of all the food they’ve made,” said O’Neill.

Also at Raub, O’Neill participates in Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), where she helps plan presentations and activities for the kids.

A few Saturdays a year, O’Neill brings her work with autistic children to an autism respite. This is a four-hour period in which parents with autistic children can drop off their kids and spend time on their own. At the respite, volunteers are paired up with one child and spend time doing activities and having lunch with the kids. From her time at the respite, she was hired by Pennsylvania Autism Action Center and now works as a Registered Behavior Technician for children with autism.

“It’s such a fun day to spend with the kids, and I highly encourage everyone to sign up for the respite on April 8. It’s held at a church in Cherryville, which is about 45-minutes away from here. It’s a long day, but it’s so fulfilling,” said O’Neill.

Finally, last spring, O’Neill and senior Allison Krall participated in an internship with Journey Home, a nonprofit organization that works with women in the work release program in Northampton County Jail. Two days a week, Krall and O’Neill would work with the women at a studio location in Easton, Pa., and once a week they would work with the women at the jail.

“I loved my time spent volunteering with them because it allowed me to see how much a label can effect someone, and taught me not to be so quick to judge a person based on their situation,” said O’Neill.

Most recently, O’Neill spent her spring break traveling to Nicaragua. Her and the rest of the team of DeSales students stayed in a house in El Crucero.

“We spent the majority of our time at two main areas: the Project Training Center in El Crucero and a school in El Callao. At the PTC, we worked in the chicken coops, greenhouse and bakery. At the school we taught a Heimlich maneuver class, built and painted a fence, played with the children and got to distribute Toms shoes to them,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill said the favorite part of the trip was being able to build relationships with the children.

“The day they got Toms, the children’s parents come and being able to share such a special moment with them is something words cannot describe. Although there was a language barrier, they never made us feel like we were different. They welcomed and accepted us with open arms, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

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