Teaching with Creative Flair

A special education teacher infuses her work with the business savvy and creative approach she honed during her years at Scranton.

Donnalee Carroll ‘91, standing, far right, and her teaching assistant Betty Hader, far left, with some of their students at Mercy Special Learning Center in Allentown.
Donnalee Carroll ‘91, standing, far right, and her teaching assistant Betty Hader, far left, with some of their students at Mercy Special Learning Center in Allentown.

Ever since winning a sixth-grade advertising competition, Donnalee Huglemeyer Carroll ’91 knew she was an effective communicator with artistic ability. As a Scranton undergraduate, though, she was uncertain of how she would apply her knack for the creative to her future career. 

Although the major she chose — communication with a focus in advertising — matched her strengths, her path eventually strayed from that field and, finally, crept back into her life again for good. She is confident that her Scranton education was the best preparation when her passion finally came calling. 

After graduating, Carroll landed her dream job as a production assistant, yet she was oddly discontent. She spent a year at an advertising agency grappling with a sense of unfulfilled purpose. “I loved the creative part of the job, but my heart just wasn’t in being part of an advertising agency in Manhattan,” she said. 

A Teacher at Heart 

That year of soul-searching resulted in a bold move. She decided to quit her job in advertising and volunteer with the Ursuline Companions in Mission, a lay mission embodying St. Angela Merici’s desire to promote justice. “I thought I’d be sent to some exotic place,” said Carroll. “I ended up at a homeless shelter in Wilmington, Delaware.” 

Her mission was working in a shelter for abused women and their children. This is when Carroll’s calling began to manifest itself. “At Halloween, children gave away their candy to others who came to the door trick-or-treating.” 

The children’s capacity for kindness moved her. Soon after, she pursued additional education and gained experience as a teaching assistant in a classroom for children with multiple disabilities, many of whom were nonverbal. She went on to serve as a special education teacher in a public school in New Jersey. In the elementary school, she worked with nonverbal students with multiple disabilities. It was among these children that she felt most at home. 

There was only one thing that could have convinced her to leave teaching, and her dream job, and that was her home. She chose to leave the school after the birth of her son, and she stayed home for the three children who followed. 

She was thrilled to go back to teaching when her children went to school, particularly because she found Mercy Special Learning Center in Allentown, part of the Diocese of Allentown. Here, she began to teach life skills to students between the ages of 15 and 21. “In 2002, God started me on a path that led me to this beautiful Catholic school,” said Carroll. “In public school, I always felt I was doing God’s work, only undercover. When I heard about Mercy, my heart leapt and I thought, ‘I can be a Catholic school teacher.’” 

At Mercy, she puts her creativity and communication skills to good use. It is her job to identify what motivates each individual student and to tailor lesson plans around that central inspiration. She thinks of her students as her “target audience,” a technique she practiced at Scranton, in order to sell a “product,” which is now — of course — education. 

Valuable Jewels 

Recently, Carroll’s advertising background has become even more indispensable. About a year ago, she and her teaching assistant, Betty Hader, found a unique way to teach life skills while imbuing students with a sense of purpose. It began as a small project for which students constructed necklaces from metal washers by applying paint, glue and scrapbook paper. The students then sold the necklaces for $5 at craft fairs and senior centers. 

While the students were cutting and gluing, Carroll put her own creativity to work, creating a logo and tagline for the venture and designing flyers. “All the tools I needed to help create this ‘business’ I had because of my Scranton degree,” she said. 

Mercy Metal Works was an immediate success. In just over a year, students have sold more than 2,000 necklaces and now staff a thriving ‘business.’ All funds raised go back into the program for supplies or are used for student outings. 

“Students shop for supplies, pay for them, interact with customers, make change — life skills we always taught. Now, though, it’s real, not pretend, and that makes a big difference,” said Carroll. 

A boy named Thomas is one of Carroll’s students. “Mercy Metal Works is such a blessing for Thomas,” said his mother, Sheri, who has seen her child thrive at the Center. “It’s so wonderful to have something for him to do that’s not only vocational and functional, but beautiful as well.” 

Sheri said Thomas has an eye for paper patterns and designs. “Even though he’s mostly nonverbal, he’s a pretty good salesman,” she said. “He once showed someone his favorite necklace and said ‘orange’ until his customer bought it.” 

Thomas and his classmates have discovered a way to connect, and Carroll counts herself blessed that her gifts and her passion, together, have helped her students along the way.

See a video about Mercy Metal Works from Mercy Special Learning Center below.

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