Merle O’Connor has been here before.
Truly. Twelve years ago when Linda Hoddy was minister, O’Connor served for a year as UU Saratoga’s Director of Religious Exploration. Though her children — daughter Vaughn and son Zach — are now 22 and 19 respectively, O’Connor has returned in the DRE role. She succeeds Julie Lewis, who is stepping down after four years in the position to devote more time to developing programs for C.R.E.A.T.E. Community Studios, a non-profit organization that promote artmaking for personal growth, communication, and social change.
After growing up in Niskayuna, O’Connor earned a degree in education at the University of South Florida, then returned home to teach for a time in Schenectady’s inner-city schools. Joining Teach for America, she spent five years teaching in public schools in rural Louisiana and New Orleans.
Mary Cobb, a UU Saratoga member, introduced O’Connor to Julie Lewis a few years ago when she was attending services at UU Saratoga, and they became friends. When Lewis mentioned to her that she would be leaving the DRE position, “I told her I had loved the position and would be very interested in being considered for it,” says O’Connor.
“I especially enjoyed teaching spirituality and world religions,” she says.
The DRE is responsible not only for programming for grades K-2, 3-5, and middle school youth, but also for providing nursery care for children under age 4. The RE program served about 30 children in 2019 with an average attendance of about 15 to 20 students per week.
Much of the programming is based on materials provided by the Unitarian Universalist Association in its Soul Matters and Our Whole Lives curricula. They focus on spiritual themes and faith formation while engaging them in the arts, building, cooking, sports, science experiments, and other activities.
“Among my priorities will be continuing to enlist committed volunteers to serve as RE guides and helpers,” O’Connor says. “We also want to retain young people when they reach middle school and to maintain close communication with other committees of the congregation, especially regarding special events, fundraising efforts and congregational chats that include families and children.”