Why me? Who cares? What more can I do?

Perhaps no one could understand the defeated mindset that can lead to those questions as well as John O’Leary, who as a 9-year-old boy in 1987 suffered a horrific accident that burned virtually his entire body.

Yet Monday he challenged Maryville City Schools employees to ignite the passion inside and ask those questions from a perspective of gratitude.

“It’s mission work, and we get paid for it. What a blessing,” O’Leary, author of the book “On Fire,” told about 750 employees attending the district’s annual Spotlight event, held at Foothills Church.

In introducing O’Leary, MCS Director Mike Winstead noted the website Niche.com recently named Maryville as having the best teachers in Tennessee based in part on feedback from parents and students.

Noting the district’s other top academic rankings, Winstead said, “I’m not sure there’s anything more significant to be known for than taking care of kids.”

Why me?

From hot water coming from the tap in the morning to simply having eyes to see, O’Leary told the school employees to not take anything for granted. “We’re blessed, maybe so much so that we forget it,” he said.

As a child, he was lying in a hospital bed, not expected to live, with his eyes swollen shut, when he heard a familiar voice tell him, “Kid, wake up! You are going to live. You are going to survive: Keep fighting.”

That was St. Louis Cardinals legendary sportscaster Jack Buck, one of the many significant people in O’Leary’s recovery.

On a day when they may be discouraged and think, “Who cares?” O’Leary told the school employees, “You are part of a child’s life for eternity. It’s a big deal. You’ve been anointed for days like this.”

What more?

Be in awe of the people who have inspired you, and strive to be that for others, he urged the educators and other school employees.

When students step on the bus, stand in the cafeteria line and sit in the classroom, O’Leary said, “We need to light them on fire with love, because they may not be getting that at home.”

And for once, he told them, be a bit selfish Monday and think about what more they could do for themselves.

O’Leary also gave them a homework assignment, to create a mission statement by finishing the statement, “I choose to thrive because ...”

For him, it’s because, “God demands it, my family deserves it and the world is starved for it.”

Service honored

A copy of O’Leary’s book is being dedicated to each of Maryville’s seven schools in honor of Penny Ferguson, recognized for 50 years of service to the district during the Spotlight ceremony.

“She is a bundle of energy and she has an incredible work ethic and a dedication to her students. That’s who she was 50 years ago and that is who she still is today,” said Amy Vagnier, MCS assistant director, in recognizing Ferguson, who teaches English at Maryville High School. “She is just that ‘On Fire’ kind of teacher.”

Others recognized Monday for 30 years of service: Angie Barham, third-grade teacher at John Sevier Elementary School; Jill Owens, fourth-grade math and science teacher at Coulter Grove Intermediate School; Nancy Koehl, art teacher at Sam Houston Elementary School; athletic director Larry Headrick; and Gena “Mama G” Damron, a seventh-grade teacher at CGIS.

The district also recognized two employees with 25 years of service — Beverly Harris, a kindergarten teacher at Foothills Elementary School, and Deana Bishop, assistant principal at Coulter Grove.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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