Oct. 26, 2020 11:15 am

Power moves: Overbrook School for the Blind’s new director of development is a world class para athlete

Pam McGonigle no longer competes, but like her guide dog Maida — who smiles after a sprint — she keeps running for the joy of it.

Pam McGonigle.

(Courtesy photo)

Pam McGonigle knows about obstacles. But she also knows a lot about breaking through and soaring above them.

One of her earliest obstacles was in sixth grade when she had to figure out how she would participate in a mandatory track and field event. Although born visually impaired, that wasn’t the stumbling block. McGonigle, at least back then, just wasn’t very athletic.

“I was kind of small and not particularly fast and really didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. McGonigle ended up choosing the longest race on the schedule and “got this crazy idea that I was going to win.” And she did. Thus began a love affair with running which she would pursue through her college years.

When her vision further declined, McGonigle started having accidents, including nearly losing an eye when she fell on an open pipe. So she hung up her running shoes — for a time.

Years later, McGonigle was introduced to the world of Paralympics and running with a guide. It didn’t take much to convince her to compete.

And just like in sixth grade, she did more than just participate. McGonigle would later win four Paralympic medals and five World Championships.

But it became increasingly difficult to pair up with a guide to match her level of performance, so again, she temporarily tabled her passion.  That gave her time to focus on her career, which is where Overbrook School for the Blind (OSB) comes in.

OSB gave McGonigle her first fulltime job as a teacher when other doors were closing. McGonigle chooses not to share the details, but suffice it to say she experienced her share of discrimination.

She is grateful for the chance OSB gave her. “They gave me my start, where a lot of others didn’t. There were many, many rejections despite my qualifications,” she said.

She went on to study development and then secured fundraising positions with other nonprofits. But McGonigle always maintained relationships with OSB staff, including the development team.

Now, more than 20 years later, McGonigle is the school’s new director of development.

Despite her long history with OSB and being visually impaired, McGonigle was not shown any special treatment. Todd Reeves, OSB executive director and CEO, said she was among several highly qualified candidates being considered, all of them going through a lengthy and grueling process. What Reeves and his team saw in McGonigle was her passion — whether in competition or simply pushing past challenges.

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Take, for example, the school’s annual gala which would have to take place virtually this year, or not at all. No one at OSB had any experience in holding a virtual fundraising event and it was scheduled to take place a mere three months after McGonigle was hired

“She could have easily talked us all out of not doing it this year, but she went for it,” Reeves said.

Pam McGonigle and Maida.

Once again, McGonigle not only met but exceeded the challenge confronting her. The school reports that this year’s revenue earned from the gala was markedly more than last year’s.

As for her running game, in 2016, McGonigle was paired with Maida, her German Shepherd running guide dog.

Maida has allowed McGonigle to independently resume her love for the sport — even if no longer competitively. She says Maida enjoys running just as much as she does and seems to even smile after a run.

McGonigle cites that since more than 70% of blind and visually impaired persons are unemployed, she makes sure to pay it forward.

“I used to think that I had to prove that I could make it outside of the blind-and-visually-impaired community, but this is where my heart is,” she said.

“And where I believe I can make a difference while still impacting the world around me.”


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