East Mt. Airy resident Maureen Gillespie (left), seen here with State Farm representative Maya Brown, was one of 10 winners to receive the National Liberty Museum’s “Teacher as Hero” Award, sponsored by State Farm, at a ceremony on May 6. (Photo by Matt Godfrey)

by Sharon Cornwall

Twenty years ago, East Mt. Airy resident Maureen Gillespie, a 23-year-old idealistic teacher fresh from a yearlong JVC (Jesuit Volunteer Corps) volunteer experience working with babies and their single mothers in Kansas, began her teaching career in Philadelphia as a high school theology teacher.

In 1997, theology classes were tolerated by the students, but suddenly there was energy in theology classes largely fueled by this teacher’s keen sense of social justice and her desire to go beyond the curriculum and offer her students inclusive acceptance. In her classroom, their voice was listened to and respected.

Maureen is a 12th grade Theology teacher at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia. Students from her class get to know who they are from personal reflection in weekly journals while learning to respond to God’s call to be young women of faith. This advocacy extends beyond her classroom, where the young teacher took on the position of Student Government Moderator (SGA).

In an all-girls school, the opportunity for female leadership is a unique possibility, and this young teacher recognized that in her position as SGA mentor, she could empower young women to recognize that leadership is service to others, a potential for personal growth and the chance to become the best version of themselves.

“Ms. Gillespie is basically my mom at school,” said Madeline Kaznica, one of Maureen’s students. “I know that whenever I need her, she’s there for me. She always encourages our ideas and hopes, even if she knows others might not. She’s our number one supporter, just like our real moms. Although she can be a serious ‘mom,’ she’s always a fun mom. No matter what, we’re always laughing. Whether it’s over her first date stories, me falling out of our Principal, Sr. Kathleen’s chair, or popping out of the stage door as Santa Claus, laughter can always be expected.”

Ms. Gillespie fosters racial diversity. She teaches the lessons of rights and the responsibilities that go with these rights. Her 20 years as a teacher have made a difference in many lives. Sadly, when one works with young adults, there are tragic events that happen, and her students have felt comforted and safe in going to their theology teacher for support and guidance.

In 2007, when a student, Lacey Gallagher, died in a car crash after attending the school prom, this teacher was the linchpin for comforting the sorrowing classmates and Lacey’s mother. The now-10-years-older teacher gave that journal, which Lacey wrote in daily in her theology class, to the grieving mother, who was grateful for this keepsake of her cherished daughter. Then there was the summer prayer vigil in 2014 when Ms. Gillespie asked the administration to open the school in the evening to gather with students suffering from the loss of their classmate, Jaylin Galdamez, in a horrific food truck fire.

There are many more stories like these which show that this teacher cares deeply for those entrusted in her care. There are the fun interactions too, like the senior prom flash mob dance that she initiated several years ago, and made sure all the seniors learned the dance (it changes each year), much to the delight of the seniors who shared a delightful dance and special moment.

The girls appreciate her authentic investment in their well-being, and they remain in contact with her and share their life stories because they are confident that she cares about them, their dreams and aspirations.

According to Colleen Trahey, another of her students, “Ms. Gillespie has had a very positive impact on me. She is one of my favorite teachers because she is always concerned with how we are doing. I recently had a bad accident, and when I came back to school, she asked how I was doing every day. When I talk to Ms. Gillespie, I can tell that she is interested in what I have to say.”

Sharon Cornwall is a fellow teacher at Little Flower High School who recently nominated Ms. Gillespie for a “Teacher as Hero” Award from the National Liberty Museum, given to educators who “make every young person feel welcome and valued.” Gillespie was in fact selected as one of 10 “Hero” Award winners. Sponsored by State Farm, the awards were presented at a ceremony at the museum on May 6.