If you shine a light on Peggy Reilly-O’Brien, she will pull 21 Cape Cod Regional Tech students into the spotlight with her. “These kids are hooked on giving back,” says their SkillsUSA Advisor proudly. “They understand we’re all connected.”
This has always been Reilly-O’Brien’s mission. Originally a Dental and Health Educator at the high school, she got involved with the national organization in 2008 because it helps students in the trades become world-class technicians as well as community leaders.
After hearing about Habitat for Humanity four years ago, Reilly-O’Brien helped her SkillsUSA team host a school “Dream Builders” Breakfast to raise funds for the Habitat build in Dennis. The following year, the kids collected treasures to auction off at the Breakfast, raising even more funds for local Habitat homes.
CCRT’s Vocational Director Annie Dolan-Niles came to the event and saw the collaboration as a natural partnership: These kids are in the construction trades, and Habitat builds houses.
Carpentry students visited the site, caught the enthusiasm, and volunteered to help. Currently Electric, Plumbing and HVAC shop students are working on Habitat Cape projects and Carpentry is building a shed for a Habitat home.
Along with her Dental Hygiene degree, Reilly-O’Brien earned her MA in Health Education so she could teach more than professional skills. After a career in private practice and teaching in New York and New Jersey, she quit the “rat race,” and crossed the bridge to join the CCRT in 1992. Advising the SkillsUSA team has become her passion. “These kids have so many great ideas,” she says. “It’s impossible to say no!”
In addition to becoming experts in their trades, students become leaders in their communities. They practice and compete in state competitions to win medals in their technical fields. There are many components to their education aside from the technical aspect, including Communication, Multicultural Awareness, Public Speaking, and, Reilly-O’Brien’s favorite, Community Service.
After Covid ended interactive fundraisers, the Harwich SkillsUSA team needed a new way to stay involved with Habitat. “I’d heard about the world-wide bicycle shortage,” Reilly-O’Brien says. “So we collected old, discarded bikes. Even though bike repair isn’t taught formally at CCRT, Auto Collision, Auto Tech, Marine Services, Plumbing and HVAC shop teachers helped us turn those bikes into great gifts for Habitat children last February.
The bike initiative earned the Harwich chapter a Gold medal, national recognition as a Model of Excellence for responding to a local need, organizing the project and bringing it to completion.
The current SkillsUSA team represents 11 of the 15 trade shops at the high school, including HVAC, Culinary Arts, Information Technologies, Engineering and Health Technologies. It’s a great opportunity for different shops to work together.
“The students did the work,” says their team advisor. “I wasn’t soaking chains in chemicals to remove rust or spray painting the bikes. I’m so proud of the kids and their shop teachers for turning around those bikes, and decorating them so creatively. These kids get how rewarding it is to give back to their community.”
The bike project that earned the Harwich Chapter a National Gold medal, will continue. In November, the Skills team hosted a Craft Fair for local artisans to sell their handmade wood, ceramic and other handmade gifts. The crafters were so appreciative, they donated beautiful items which will be sold to raise funds for more community projects. CCRT students will help build Habitat sheds and continue to get more involved in this wonderful collaboration, initiated by the person who takes so little credit: Peggy Reilly O’Brien.
Discussions are underway about future projects for CCRT and Habitat, including having another “Dream Builders” Breakfast, and making bookshelves for the kids in the Habitat homes.
Mrs. Reilly-O’Brien is more than our advisor, says chapter president Etzer Lindor. “She’s a true friend, always ready to help and advise us.” She pushes — in a good way — to take that step. And you know she won’t let you fall!”
Habitat celebrates the teachers and students at CCRT, especially Peggy Reilly-O’Brien and her amazing team of future world-class leaders with big hearts!