Just imagine working 10-hour days, 6 and sometimes 7 days a week managing the entire recreational agenda for the Evergreen Park and Recreation District. That includes Buchanan and Wulf Recreational Centers, the Evergreen Lake House, athletics and youth sports, aquatics, gymnastics, children’s programs, and even special needs.
Ellen O’Connor has been preparing for such a commitment since she was in high school. It was during those years that Ellen found her passion and became heavily involved within her community, creating Camp Rainbow Sports for children with special needs.
She says she loved school because of the many friends she made while excelling in both basketball and track and field.
After receiving scholarships in those sports, she completed her teaching degree at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin where she assumed a leadership position in the town and again reached out to disabled kids through Special Olympics and other programs. Recreational services brought her great joy, she says, and it was always her desire to share such with others.
Ellen’s parents divorced when she was quite young. Interestingly, she has always considered this to be a plus, for the situation presented two separate homes, both equipped with enough love and guidance to afford a happy and successful childhood, with plane rides to boot. She insists that the breakup enhanced her early years and helped to establish a positive lifestyle of resilience and strength.
Born in Oklahoma City, she and her two brothers moved to Chicago with her father when she was only four. Soon after they moved to Gurnee, a small country town just north of the city, where her dad could care for his aging father. By the time Ellen turned five she had assumed part-time responsibility for her granddad and attended to his every need while her father was at work. Because there was no kindergarten at her school she was forced to wait an extra year to attend school every day with her brothers. She says she can remember the powerful envy as they left for school each morning while she was required to stay home.
After graduating from college, Ellen moved back to Gurnee where she was offered a supervisor position of the town’s park and recreation services. She accepted the job, despite working full time as a kindergarten teacher. It was her responsibility to develop, implement and coordinate programs within the community, which she accomplished with great success. After a year of hard work, including weekends, she advanced to Program Supervisor for not only Gurnee, but also for the surrounding townships. Ellen says she has always been keenly conscious of quality of life and her passions led her to spread this awareness to others. She says it’s fundamentally rewarding to see folks walk into the rec center with a frown and walk out with a huge grin.
Although she kept long hours at her job, it did not preclude her from attending to her own personal needs. Ellen eventually met a man whom she dated for two years before marrying him in 1988. During their courtship they were separated because of his job, which eventually required him to move. Once again Ellen found herself flying back and forth, which she continued for a short while until finally giving in and moving to Lakewood, Colorado.
The year was 1988 when the couple built a home, settled in and began a new life. Of course, Ellen made a visit to the local rec center and inquired about a job. She was immediately hired to manage all children’s and youth programs in Lakewood. But, that’s not all. It was during these years – 10 ½ – that this driven woman became a mother. Her first child, Danielle Marie is now 23 years old and has followed in her mother’s steps, working at the Foothills Parks and Recreation. Ryan John is 20 and is a junior and a known basketball star at Colorado Mesa University. Ellen says the kids are the loves of her life.
As if working full time and raising two children weren’t enough, Ellen also began efforts to gain a master’s degree soon after the children were born. She worked night and day, achieving her goal and graduating from an online college. During these years Ellen had little personal time and says sitting quietly on her deck or walking the dog were her only activities.
Unfortunately, after 22 years, her marriage came to an end. It was a dark time in her life requiring serious efforts to stay afloat and continue her career. She maintains that her faith kept her going. It was not long after that she was offered the position of Recreation Manager here in Evergreen.
Ellen describes herself as extremely passionate and emotional with a bad habit of putting herself last. But, as she says, these traits stem from a very rich childhood filled with stirring Irish weddings, moving Irish funerals and a devotion to the Catholicism that she still embraces. In fact, she has been to Ireland twice; once with her father before his passing and again with her daughter. She was able to look up many of her relatives and research her heritage first-hand. Her memories of Ireland are precious and she says not a day goes by without thinking of her far-off motherland and yearning for another chance to take it in.
It seems as though this tenacious, unstoppable one-woman force will always be reaching upward, climbing the ladder of success. When the Executive Director resigned earlier this year, Ellen was named Interim Co-Executive Director, and she's hopeful she'll be able to drop the “Interim” and “Co” part of her title and be selected for the impressive rank of Executive Director of Evergreen Parks and Recreation.
While waiting for the possible advancement she plans to continue doing exactly what she’s been doing since high school – working to create a better existence for all those she touches. She confesses that at the end of the day it’s all about caring, because “One caring heart is all that it takes to make a difference.” That’s not only Ellen’s motto, it has become a way of life.