“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.
When those dreams you're dreamin' come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind
That’s not only good advice from Country legend Tim McGraw but also the lyrics to Lisa O’Kane’s favourite song, Humble and Kind, which was sung to her during one of her last days as a Principal during an assembly at Widdifield Secondary School in June of 2018.
It marked the end of a long career in education for O’Kane and it is clear to anyone who knows her, she has lived by those words throughout her tenure which has touched so many lives of people in our community and beyond. And the reason she has made such an impact is because she truly cared about every single student that walked through the doors of every school, she had been a part of.
“My husband always laughed and said, ‘how many kids do we have this year,’ because, even when I was a teacher I thought about all of them as mine,” says O’Kane.
“I’m teaching at Nipissing University now in the B.Ed. program and I say to all of the students up there that these kids will become yours, if you allow them to, and you allow them into your heart and into who you are as a person as well.”
Its those kinds of qualities that made O’Kane such an approachable and genuine person during her time within the Near North District School Board which ended just two summers ago.
But between the different schools and communities that O’Kane's career took her to, once she made the decision to put a cap on her career it was looking like there was going to be no slowing down in terms of staying connected with the community. O’Kane has always been visible in different charity walks and runs, as well as lending a helping hand at a variety of North Bay initiatives wherever she could.
However, shortly into retirement, life threw a curveball.
“Four days after I had retired, Pat (her husband) was diagnosed with Stage Three Colon Cancer. So, we went through all of that, the surgery and the follow-up chemotherapy for a full year,” she says.
Not one to sit back and dwell on the negatives, the O’Kanes wanted to show others that there is always hope.
“To keep us occupied during that really dark time, Pat wanted to do something to give back to the chemo unit. It’s an incredible group of people there at the hospital and they see you at your lowest and you're most scared. They take you as a part of the team. So, we wanted to honour that and with Pat being a musician we thought why not do a benefit concert for the chemo unit specifically.”
CEO of the North Bay Regional Health Centre Foundation Tammy Morrison says the O’Kanes were able to raise enough money to provide a much-needed piece of equipment.
“Lisa and Pat came to the foundation office one day and wanted to do something special for the staff in appreciation of the care he had received,” she says.
“So, we talked about a lot of different things, but as many know this is an extremely talented couple and Pat is quite a musician and so they put on the benefit concert in June and raised more than $6,800. That was used to buy a blanket warmer, which is a really important item for patient comfort.”
O’Kane says, “When you are in chemo, you get cold a lot and you ache. The blankets they give you when you arrive for your chemo infusion acts like a big warm hug. They can only do four blankets at a time, so we wanted to get a bigger blanket warmer for them and that was our way of giving back.”
And that will not be where their generosity ends for the hospital.
Morrison says, “Pat and Lisa have been so incredibly engaged with our hospital and our foundation over the last year and they have made a $10,000 pledge so that they can continue to support some of the needs we have in the chemo unit. We’ve talked about other items that they might consider doing in the future around patient comfort and some technology items that will have a real impact on care.”
She adds, “Given the success of last year's benefit concert I think they are going to blow that $10,000 pledge out of the water.”
O’Kane's teaching career began at W.J. Fricker. She says the dedication was always there to help those around her and treat them as if they were an extended part of her own family.
“I may not have been an excellent principal at other aspects of my job, like budgeting, scheduling, or anything like that, but the kids were always first and foremost in my work for sure.”
That was instilled in O’Kane from an early age.
“I started way back at 16 years old as a playground supervisor in North Bay. Dave Saad gave me that first job and I know I’ve always loved kids and it just seemed a natural progression for me because my mom is a teacher. I say IS because you never stop being a teacher, so even my mother at 80-years of age is a teacher. So, I just kind of followed in her pathway. I also loved the idea of education and learning and making a difference.”
But that didn’t mean she always thought teaching or a career in education was exactly where she would end up.
“I thought of nursing, because again it's just the ‘making a difference’ component of things,” O’Kane explains. “I like people, I like helping and I just want to make a difference in peoples lives, but education for me was the way to do that.”
O’Kane moved around the board a lot during her time.
“It was the best,” she says.
“I always joked that I couldn’t hold down a job, because I just kept moving. I went from being a grade seven and eight teacher at Fricker and I loved teaching my kids there. Then I went to being an administrator at the high school level. I can’t even count the number of kids and families I’ve had over the years, but every new place was such a unique and amazing experience.”
That administration position started to take O’Kane around the region and it gave her a sense of appreciation for the grander community we call home.
“From Fricker, to going to Mattawa for a four-month period just to take over for someone after being a vice principal at Widdifield and I loved the Mattawa community.
Then I became the principal out at Northern and it was just so special. I cried every time I left those places. Then I went on to Almaguin and I love that community and my parents were born in that area so for me it was coming home in a sense. And then there was my experience at Widdifield,” she says.
“Every aspect of it, every aspect of my career was rich and rewarding and challenging and I loved it all. I’m not the person to just stand still and just get into a groove. I make my own way out of the groove and to look back on it, it was just a fantastic career.”
She adds it is something she would recommend because she learned so much from doing that, “Absolutely it was an amazing and rewarding experience. Our whole surrounding region is so rich and so amazing to see the different nuances in every single community. You really learn a lot, it’s a beautiful area that we live in.”
Outside of the classroom and school hallways, one of the foundations O’Kane has put a lot of her heart into is Special Olympics. And she says the love of that was always in the genes.
“It comes from my mom. My mom taught in special education classrooms and integrated classrooms for a lot of her career,” she says.
“I started volunteering way back when I was a B.Ed. student by bringing crafts in for those students at Widdifield. That was really where I found my love for those athletes.”
O’Kane says every moment working and training and spending time around the Special Olympics athletes is time spent finding out what truly matters in this world.
“They give you so much,” she says.
“With my background in athletics I had always wanted to do something with Special Olympics and got involved through the group at Widdifield, with Rob Saunders and that whole group that runs an amazing program for youth in Special Olympics North Bay, and I got involved in the adult program as well.
Through all of that I’ve gotten to do amazing things, such as running our local and regional track and field meets. I went to the provincial games and then I was selected for the national games as well. I coach floor hockey, and track and field and I will be doing snowshoeing. They are such amazing human beings and I learn more from them than I think they would ever learn from me.”
She adds, “Any school I’ve gone to, if I was having a bad day, I would always wander down to those classrooms to get an infusion of joy, because that is the way they operate their lives. They are such wonderful human beings that bring such a sense of joy to the world.”
O’Kane says North Bay as a community has been so receptive of the events and competitions the Special Olympics athletes have been involved in and she says that is so vital for the success of these programs.
“The support from the community is essential for both the adults and the young people. We are really trying to develop right from the ground up and that’s what I think it is, it encompasses the entire community. It’s a beautiful thing to watch them support each other and share in each others’ victories,” she says.
“We also have to give a big thank you to our connections to the police, both the OPP and the city police are absolutely paramount. Without those two organizations, Special Olympics doesn’t run.”
Don't take for granted the love this life gives you
When you get where you're goin'
Don't forget turn back around
Help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind
If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at firstname.lastname@example.org