For Jim O’Dea, devotion to others is a way of life
by Susan Anderson
When the “hobby farm” he fashioned for his family didn’t pan out, he cleared the corn field and created a public golf range. Then he added a Halloween Walk of Terror for the neighborhood to enjoy. Later, he brought in a bulldozer and a snow tubing hill was born. Now, two decades after he first planned his dream farm, Jim O’Dea oversees a successful year-round business that has nothing at all to do with farming — and that’s just what he does during nights and weekends.
A guidance counselor for the past 33 years (26 of which he’s spent at Allegany-Limestone School District), O’Dea has two rules in life: try hard and be nice.
So far, both have served him just fine.
A Career of Caring
A few minutes into a visit with O’Dea in the suite of offices he oversees at Allegany-Limestone Central School, the first thing one can sense is camaraderie.
On this particular day, the area is filled with students and sunlight. A trio of girls is gathered around a circular table, giggling as they share jokes and the serious business of completing scholarship applications. Not far away is a group of guys considering career choices. An easy atmosphere prevails. Compared to the hustle and bustle in the hallway outside, it’s downright relaxing.
But O’Dea will tell you that for some students his office is “a place to hide out rather than a place to hang out.” He tries to make the area “a rock” for the students, a spot to come to if they need a place to visit during the day. He knows how rough the terrain of young adulthood can be and has made a personal promise to be available to every student who needs him.
The problems O’Dea sees teens facing today — pregnancies, stress, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use — echo those of yesterday in name only, with some being “10 times worse.” Another issue for many youth is the lack of parenting. “The young kids who dropped out of school, who weren’t making good choices back then, now aren’t teaching their children to make good choices,” he says. All of which leads to no typical work day. “You could see 20 kids a day, you could see five. Or you could see one and be with him/her all morning.”
It is that one-on-one interaction that clearly matters most to O’Dea.
“It’s about listening and trying to get people on the right path,” he says. “If I don’t support them and make them feel they are worth something, then I have failed.”
A key ingredient to O’Dea’s success at bonding with students and helping them through the rough patches might well be his philosophy to “stay in the middle.” He doesn’t form an opinion, take sides, or allow his “personal beliefs to interfere with what is best.”
“You have to always work from your heart,” he says, pointing out that “you never know when a kid is going to listen to what you said; whether it’s tomorrow or five years from tomorrow.”
There Are No Strangers
While O’Dea’s high school office holds a bit of Gator memorabilia, it is the many photographs of family, friends and students that capture the eye. Some are propped near his keyboard. Others spill out of a thick manila folder. Picking one at random, O’Dea slants a smile at it, and says, “You get pretty tight with kids over a four year period. There’s a bond that lasts through more than just graduation.”
His present and former students echo that sentiment. Mike Hastings, a 2001 graduate who has known O’Dea his whole life, says he is “the kind of guy who is always around when someone needs a helping hand.”
Senior Cody Provorse, who averages 15 hours per week working for O’Dea’s Mountain Snow Tubing Paradise, admires his congeniality. “He’s just so friendly,” he says. “When new customers come into the lodge, he’ll walk right up to them as if he’s known them for years.” Fellow worker and classmate Steve Sikes agrees, noting how “easy going” O’Dea is and what a “good environment” it is working for him.
The Bonds of Bonaventure
O’Dea hails from Marion, Ohio, but planted deep roots in this area after earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree from St. Bonaventure University. He chose the university because of his parents.
“Bonaventure was always a place in their hearts and it was a perfect fit for me. Once I got here, I never went back,” he says. “A lot of what I give back to kids comes from not only my family but the university.”
When asked what he is most proud of in his professional life, O’Dea pauses — a long pause, as if focusing his thoughts on himself isn’t the norm.
“I guess I’m most proud of the fact that I still have a lot of stuff left in me yet,” he finally says, “that I’m not burned out. I still feel I can make a difference in a kid’s life … and when that leaves, I guess I’ll leave.”