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Shelter Island Profile: Janine Mahoney, a special teacher for special students

Janine Mahoney in her classroom at the Shelter Island School.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Janine Mahoney in her classroom at the Shelter Island School.

When Janine Mahoney was a fifth grader in Shoreham, she acquired a pen pal named Christine Hibbert who lived in Mansfield, England and had brown hair, blue eyes and glasses, just like 11-year-old Janine.

Over the four decades that Janine and Christine have exchanged letters, both have married, had daughters and led rich, rewarding lives. But the two women have never actually spoken to each other.

“We’ve never met, we’ve never spoken on the phone, we haven’t emailed,” Janine said.

When Janine began writing to Christine, she already knew she wanted to be a teacher. Since then she’s worked with autistic adults and special education students for most of her adult life. Her consistent focus, and impressive ability to stick with the complex work of making improvement over time, have made her an admirable and effective teacher for people with special needs, some of whom don’t speak or communicate in conventional ways.

Janine’s relationship with her pen pal says a lot about the kind of person she is. Consistent and seeing things through, she’s applied the same skills to her work helping people.

A special ed teacher at the Shelter Island School since 2001, Janine is also the faculty advisor for the National Honor Society (NHS), coordinating the many service projects carried out by the NHS students, including helping staff the Shelter Island 5K to support people with breast cancer and their families.

On June 3, for the 10th year running, she’s participating in “Relay for Life” to benefit the American Cancer Society. This year’s event has 19 students signed up from grades 9 through 12 to participate in the all-night relay walk to raise money.

Janine is a lifetime resident of Suffolk County, born and raised in Shoreham, where her mother Janice Buckley, who now lives in a retirement community in Ridge, raised Janine and her older sister Jennifer.

Janine’s first experience of school was joyful. Her first and second grade teacher, Mrs. Laz, set her on the path to becoming a teacher.

“She had a reading teepee in her room so I built a papoose for my baby doll during our Native American study,” Janine said. “She had a story I wrote published in the local paper. Starting then, I just loved school.”

She and her sister always volunteered and taught Sunday school, inspired by their mother. “She was a single mom,” Janine said. “She drove a bus for people with disabilities and I worked as an aide on the bus.”

After graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue with a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary and Special Education, she worked at a group home for adults with autism to make sure that she was comfortable with the work. “It turned out that it was a wonderful job,” she said. “I learned so much more than I ever had before.”

Janine’s husband, John, works at Maryhaven Center of Hope in Yaphank, a facility providing services for people with disabilities, where he runs the vocational workshop program. She and John, who hails from Levittown, met at a beach club in the Hamptons when she was 18 and he was 24.

“By the time I was 20, we were married,” Janine said. “We had a little house, off exit 68.”

Her first teaching job was with the Developmental Disabilities Institute, first in Huntington and then in Selden. She was at the Oysterponds School in Orient, teaching six “high-needs” kids who came from school districts all over the North Fork.

Janine and John’s daughter Corinne was a baby, when, in 1996, pregnant with Keri Ann, the family came to Shelter Island for the Labor Day weekend. They stayed at the Azalea House, toured the Island and liked what they saw so much that when they got back to exit 68 they put their home on the market. By June 1997, the family, now four, moved into their new home on Terry Drive.

In 2001, Janine was commuting to her job in Orient and John to his job in Yaphank with two small children. Car seats, diaper bags and the logistics of day care were daunting, even with Jeanine’s mom helping take care of the girls. When a half-time special ed teaching position opened up at the Shelter Island School, Jeanine was determined to make it work, though she needed a full-time job.

“I figured I might have to do something else, like sell candles on the side,” she said.

She went in for what she thought was a second interview, but got a job offer, plus a half-time teacher assistant position. Her first thought: “I do not have to sell candles,” she said.

Janine is inspired by the desire to help improve the lives of her special education students, even those with autism, a notoriously difficult condition to address. She recalled a conference she attended where she spoke with Temple Grandin, the well-known author, and spokesperson for autistic people, who is herself on the autism spectrum.

“She said that we need to expect individuals with autism to function, and we need to help get them there,” Janine said. “Sitting in the basement is not an option.”

Students who are invited to join the NHS have a 90 average or better, are rarely absent from school, and show an interest in public service. As faculty advisor, Jeanine coordinates the service projects that students choose, such as building homes for people in need with Habitat for Humanity.

Last week, Janine and the NHS members returned to a house in Orient where they had hung sheetrock and installed windows last year, to finish the landscaping. A month from now, they will attend a ceremony in which the keys to the house they helped build will be turned over to the new owner.

Looking forward, Jeanine says she owes her pen pal in England a letter, and may even travel to England one day to meet Christine. And she has at least another decade of teaching to look forward to.

“I always love going to school every day, and working with the most amazing colleagues and support staff,” said Jeanine. “I am so glad that we moved here and raised our girls in this community.”

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