WIND POINT — Alan Mills still remembers those chocolate pretzel sticks.
Most of all, he remembers the young lady who used to bring them to him every Christmas season.
Her name is Melissa Rooney and she was a star pupil in Mills’ middle school class before graduating from The Prairie School in 2013. She also was a star athlete, and a star in pretty much anything else she took on in her life.
“If you were looking for the renaissance woman, she was the renaissance woman,” Mills said. “She was an outstanding athlete, she had an outstanding sense of humor, she was a top student and she was an artist, all at the same time.”
More than anything, Mills remembers Rooney as benevolent, sweet-natured and beloved. And that brings us back to those chocolate pretzel sticks.
“She and her sisters would make them and bring them as gifts to their teachers at Christmas,” Mills said. “When I didn’t have her in class anymore, she would still bring me these pretzel sticks.
“I felt so privileged to stay on her list for treats every December.”
Rooney, 24, has since gone far beyond passing out treats every Christmas season. For the past 20 months, she has been a member of the Peace Corps in Mozambique, which is in Sub-Saharian Africa along the Indian Ocean.
She has taught high school chemistry in classes that range from 45 to 65 students as her primary project. Her secondary undertaking has been coaching soccer for a group of girls in Mozambique. Corey Oakland, Rooney’s soccer coach at Prairie, even arranged to have a set of uniforms that was retired by the school in 2014 shipped to Rooney last November for her young athletes to wear in competition.
The girl who was issued No. 10 received the same uniform Rooney wore, which was an honor.
“I could go on and on about how awesome ‘Issa is as a person and former high school athlete,” Oakland said.
An impressive upbringing
Maybe this calling to achieve was inspired by her parents, Patrick and Kathleen. While their four daughters — Elizabeth, Jessie and Bobbi are their other three — were raised in a comfortable household, Patrick and Kathleen expected each to work jobs when they were old enough and to never take the easy way out.
“They never micromanaged us as we did our homework,” Melissa said. “Just to give you an idea, we have this family story about the ‘lighthouse project.’ When I was attending Prairie, third-graders had a lighthouse unit. Each student had to research a lighthouse in the U.S., write a report about the lighthouse, and build a model.
“Us Rooney girls all built such ugly lighthouse models because we had no help from our parents. It was a great lesson, though. Maybe our lighthouses weren’t beautiful, but we built them ourselves. I think a lot of our creativity, confidence and independence came from the way our parents raised us.”
Getting things done has been what Rooney has been all about most of her life. Kathleen Rooney recalls a 3-year-old Melissa vowing to her family that she was going to stop sucking her thumb and then never doing so again.
She remembers Melissa returning home from kindergarten frustrated because she didn’t learn as much that day after her classmates acted so silly.
“She didn’t realize that was normal kindergarten behavior,” Kathleen Rooney said.
There was the time as a senior in high school when she had to choose between a piano competition and playing in a Racine County soccer tournament.
“So she did both,” Kathleen said. “She juggled a piano competition at Parkside in between two soccer games at the RASA fields.”
And then there was her senior year for the soccer team Lawrence University in Appleton, which won only one game that season. Rooney had missed most of the season with a medial collateral ligament injury, “but she was determined to get back on the field,” Kathleen Rooney said. “She worked her way back to play the last three games.”
Daring to make a difference
That was the same young lady who made the daunting decision to head to Mozambique in September 2017, shortly after graduating from Lawrence. Making that 27-month commitment didn’t come without hesitation, but her heart convinced her to go.
“I knew I wanted to take a gap year before graduate school,” she said. “I didn’t travel abroad during college, so I had an itch to get out of the U.S. I also felt I had been so privileged because of the education I received. I went to Prairie School and then Lawrence University. I had some inspiring teachers who challenged me and pushed me to challenge myself.
“I thought teaching chemistry is Mozambique could give me an opportunity to pay it forward.”
So often Rooney went with a leap of faith. Heading into the final stretch of her commitment, she can say, “I wouldn’t go back or change anything.”
Mozambique has been that rewarding to a young lady who dared to open her horizons. She has made connections she will take with her through the rest of her life.
“I am most fulfilled by spending time with people in my community,” she said. “I am very lucky to be surrounded by a lot of amazing and strong women.”
As a chemistry teacher, Rooney has been creative in trying to connect with students of a different culture.
“I was teaching my 12th graders dilution chemistry,” Rooney said. “If you know the concentration of a stock solution, the dilute solution you want to make, and the volume of that dilute solution you want, you can calculate how much of the stock solution to use.
“This can be very confusing when explaining in general terms. Instead, I brought juice concentrate to class. We determined how much juice we wanted to make and at what concentration. From there, we were able to use our concentration. We diluted our juice to the specifications we determined and drank juice after class. The students had a lot of fun.”
Making a difference with soccer
The Peace Corps sometimes partners with outside organizations, one of which is Grassroot Soccer, which, according to its mission statement, “is an adolescent health organization that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire and mobilize youth in developing countries to overcome the greatest health challenges, live healthier, more productive lives and be agents for change in the their community.”
Soccer is right up Rooney’s alley. And she is using it to make an even greater difference during her mission.
“We work with girls ages 13 to 19 and follow a curriculum focused on HIV, AIDS, women’s health, healthy choices, leadership and sexual health,” she said. “I wanted to do this program initially because I love soccer and I thought it would be a fun way to share important lessons with young women in my community.
“We met twice a week for six weeks. After completing the program, we had a graduation celebration for the girls. The name of our team was ‘Vivas Mulheres,’ or ‘Alive Women.’ “
When Rooney returns to the United States, she said she may pursue a master’s or Ph.D. program in chemistry. She said she also will try to continue making a difference with her experiences from Mozambique.
“A lot of people don’t know that much about Mozambique or Africa in general for that matter,” she said. “I didn’t know much at all before I came here, so I don’t judge anyone for it.
“But I believe the world would be a better place if we all challenged ourselves to empathize and see to understand people who are different from us.”
“I believe the world would be a better place if we all challenged ourselves to empathize and see to understand people who are different from us.” Melissa Rooney, Peace Corps volunteer and graduate of The Prairie School
The contents of this article do not reflect any position of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps or of Grassroot Soccer.
"I believe the world would be a better place if we all challenged ourselves to empathize and see to understand people who are different from us."
Melissa Rooney, Peace Corps volunteer and graduate of The Prairie School
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