Volunteers Doing: Volunteering Through Work … and Retirement

Karen Defur Maxwell began volunteering as a teenager in her hometown of Binghamton, New York. “In high school, I was a candy striper at the local hospital and part of Up with People (an education organization promoting cultural understanding through service and music).”{{more}} She explained, “We gave concerts to create a positive feeling for the kids. It was all about good will and being friendly.”

After moving to Connecticut, Karen became part of Milford’s Junior Women’s Club. As a foreign language teacher, Karen was in charge of the International Committee. She also put together the group’s cook book of international recipes.

When Karen moved to Orange, she was teaching in New Haven and became active in the Sister Cities program. Karen chaired the Avignon Committee which supported student travel and student exchanges. Locally, Karen helped out with the Girl Scout troop at Race Brook School including attending overnight camping trips, and she helped to plan her neighborhood block parties.

As a member of the Orange Congregational Church, Karen has been a Sunday school teacher, has served and still serves on various committees, and helps with the Children’s Sermons. Karen’s connections in New Haven led her to help the Orange Rotary with their Annual Coat Drive. “I have been the intermediary between Rotary and the New Haven Public schools,” she explained. Karen would get the counts for Rotary as to how many girls and boys and what size coats were needed. One year Karen volunteered to personally purchase coats when many late requests came in. “I didn’t want to turn down the kids,” she said, “but fortunately enough donations came in to cover the requests. This is one of the most rewarding things I have done. The kids and parents are so appreciative for the coats.”

2013 has brought some big changes and honors for Karen. Besides retiring from the New Haven school system where she has been for 26 years as a teacher and most recently the Supervisor of Foreign Language, Karen received one of the oldest awards from France, a Medal of Distinction whose history dates back to Napoleon. The award, the Chevalier des Palmes, was presented to Karen in June by French Cultural Counselor Antonin Baudry. Baudry explained, “the Palmes Academiques were founded to give back to the men and women who spend their lives teaching how to think for oneself and to open one’s mind to culture.”

Karen received this award for her efforts to create the first French Immersion School in the state. New Haven’s King Robinson Magnet School is a Pre-k through grade 8 school that is an international baccalaureate school meaning the curriculum must be approved based on an international model and standards. Karen explained that she had seen other French Immersion schools and felt it could be done at King Robinson because they already had a strong French program. After approaching the PTO, principal and the French teacher, the idea began to take shape. The program was implemented with grades K-1 and next year will expand to K-3. In this program, French is the language of instruction, Karen said. She further explained that half the day is in French for language arts and social study while math and science are taught in English.

So what is next for Karen, who is still teaching at Quinnipiac University as well as working on a book linking the Common Core standards to the World Language classroom? “I like to be busy”, she said. Karen added that she wants to be able to give back in retirement and is planning to run for the Orange Board of Education in November stating that with her years of experience in education she feels she can bring a lot to the Orange school system, a system both her daughters went through and her grandchildren will be as well. For Karen, education is coming full circle.

Jody Dietch is the Synagogue Administrator at Congregation Or Shalom. She is a member of the Orange Board of Education serving as vice chair. Jody has degrees in both journalism and public relations.