The COVID pandemic has been tough on kids—and Rica Velasco knows that better than most.
As the guidance counselor at St. Joseph’s Parish School in Waipahu, Velasco has grappled with soaring demand for counseling services among students over the last two years. She’s sought to not only meet those needs but give kids new tools to appropriately express their feelings and manage them.
That’s why she worked with St. Joseph’s Principal Beverly Sandobal to roll out an innovative social-emotional learning program across all grade levels that’s already had a positive impact on young lives.
“When we opened after the COVID lockdown…students and parents were afraid to return to school. Students were anxious and depressed, having difficulty with organizations and coping,” she said. “Since this program was implemented, students are more willing to talk about their feelings.”
Velasco’s dedication, her compassion and her service have been noticed.
And at a ceremony May 19, Chaminade University and Hawaii Catholic Schools named Velasco the Hawaii Catholic Schools Teacher of the Year for 2022, presenting her with the Golden Pine“apple” Trophy along with $1,000 from Chaminade and John C. and Mary Lou Brogan, $1,000 in gas cards from Par Hawaii’s Hele Gas and $1,500 for St. Joseph staff development from the Augustine Educational Foundation.
The honor left Velasco beaming—and humbled.
“I was shocked to receive this recognition since I work alongside many innovative and outstanding teachers at St. Joseph who inspire me every day,” she said. “I am passionate about my work and grateful for this acknowledgment. Our team allows us to move mountains. I’m blessed to be part of this school.”
In addition to serving as the guidance counselor at her school, Velasco is the technology director and even steps in as a substitute teacher when needed. Her technology director hat has kept her particularly busy during the pandemic, with launching online and hybrid learning platforms and troubleshooting.
She also oversees her school’s one-on-one distribution of digital devices to students.
“Online learning was a challenge and an opportunity for our teachers to leap into digital learning,” Velasco said. “Today, I’m proud that all our teachers use technology to engage and enhance learning. Technology is constantly changing, and it challenges me to be open to change in all that I do.”
But it is her role as guidance counselor, watching students develop into “empathetic, confident and collaborative individuals,” that Velasco most enjoys. “Meeting with students who have difficulty making friends and then seeing them on the playground laughing with others is a joy for me,” she said.
Colleagues who nominated Velasco for the award said her implementation of the social-emotional learning program has made a significant difference at the school, especially as students and teachers alike navigate the “new normal” of the pandemic. “It helped both teachers and students cope with the uncertainties of living with COVID,” one colleague wrote. Another said that Velasco has created an environment that fosters empathy, understanding, and strong and healthy relationships.
Sandobal, the school principal, said she couldn’t agree more.
She related the case of one kindergartner who had difficulty speaking to peers and teachers alike. Velasco, she said, helped create safe places so the student could begin to confidently express herself.
“The student is now in third grade and is not afraid to articulate her thoughts and ideas inside and outside the classroom,” Sandobal said. “We and her parents are so proud to celebrate her progress.”
Sandobal added that as school counselor, Velasco has also helped address bullying by working with teachers and students, conducting classroom observations, and creating a daily report card to accomplish specific goals. She has also provided teacher training on behavior plans.
“Living out the school’s mission is the central point and focus of all the work that Rica does as counselor,” Sandobal. “With her focus on relationship building, she has provided significant ways for us provide a safe, caring, family-oriented environment that is centered in Jesus Christ.”
Velasco said she looks forward to continuing the growth of her social-emotional learning program, including by facilitating new conversations with parents and community members. “Our school faced many challenges over the past couple years,” she said. “We grew and changed together and walked away more competent, resilient and faith-filled. I look forward to what God has in store for us.”