Genuine, authentic, and dedicated are three adjectives that colleagues use to describe Ashley Parkin, MSEd, education coordinator for NECC’s Higley Road Team. During her 10 years at NECC, Parkin has made a lasting impression on her colleagues. This is one of the reasons she was chosen as the recipient of the 2021 Maria Felix Lonergan (MFL) Award.

“She is someone who goes above and beyond for her students and staff she oversees, and they are first in everything she does,” said Heather Fortin, assistant professor of practice for the Simmons University autism specialization program and coordinator of NECC practicum as well as donor relations coordinator at NECC. “She is so proud and genuinely excited with the accomplishments of the students she sees each day. She loves those young men and has so much respect for those students and their families.”  

The MFL Award honors Maria Felix Lonergan, who dedicated her career to improving the lives of children with autism at NECC for nearly 20 years before losing her battle with cancer in November 2015. In memory of Lonergan and her significant contributions, the MFL Award is issued annually to an NECC teacher who exemplifies three main themes inspired by Maria: mentorship of new professionals, advocacy for students’ effective education, and professionalism.

“It means so much to win this award because the [characteristics of] this award are things I fight for every day and are the things that I hold near and dear to my heart,” said Parkin. “It is an honor to be able to continue with everything that [Maria] fought for and everything she worked so hard for. Hopefully [I can] continue to live up to the standard and the excellence that she strived for and worked for.”

Parkin’s dedication to improving the lives of students with autism isn’t the only similarity she shares with the late Lonergan. Like Lonergan, Parkin fought her own battle with cancer this past spring. After experiencing memory problems as well as visual and auditory issues last summer, Parkin saw a slew of specialists before an MRI revealed she had a tumor in the central part of her brain. Parkin’s tumor was removed in March and turned out to be a low-grade cancer.

“I’m very fortunate and nothing about that is lost on me,” she said. “That’s what makes this award even more special to me is that I still get to do what I love to do, and Maria doesn’t. So that part of it hits a little bit emotionally for me because I know that she fought up until the last moment to do what she loved and is no longer here.”

Parkin returned to work after five weeks, but said she was trying to “break in” after a month. “This is what I love doing and I just wanted to get back to it,” she explained. “Being away reminded me just how much I love this job and how much I wanted to get back to it.”

Parkin discovered her love for helping students with special needs while volunteering at a preschool during her senior year of college. “It was during that experience that everything that I had planned for before that was no longer what I wanted to do,” she said, adding that she found NECC when seeking out programs that worked with children with special needs.

Parkin started at NECC as a level 1 teacher (the equivalent of what is now called a behavioral health technician) before moving to a level 2 teacher in a case manager position, then to the day school, and ultimately to the residential team of Higley. A year into her tenure, Parkin took advantage of NECC’s onsite graduate programs and enrolled in the Simmons University’s master’s in education with a focus in severe disabilities, followed by the two-year program at Western New England University.

“I really wanted to better myself as an educator,” said Parkin, who majored in biological psychology with a minor in neuroscience at the University of Maine Orono. “My undergrad isn’t related to education, so I knew I needed to push myself in that area and build the skillset required to make a meaningful impact in my students’ lives.”  

Both the Simmons and WNEU programs helped Parkin expand her knowledge about teaching and develop skills. And she continues to learn every day.

“I love what I do here. It is extremely challenging and a place in which I can continue to better myself and learn from other people,” she said. “There isn’t a moment or day that goes by that I don’t learn something from one of my teachers or my students or someone random who steps into my world. It’s neat to have an experience like that and to better yourself as an educator through all of these different modes and people.”

Though the pandemic has made the last two years the hardest of Parkin’s career, there isn’t anywhere else she’d rather be. “When I signed up to educate the students I educate, I meant it,” she said. “Through the good times and the challenging times, and the times that we never saw coming. This is what I was meant to do, and this is what I said I would do, and this is what I love doing.”