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A giver of hugs, a hero to kids

Seven Oaks teacher Carmela Gallagher, who had "magic in her teaching," dies days after having an aneurysm.

By ERIN SULLIVAN
Published June 4, 2007


LAND O'LAKES - It was Friday, May 25, the last day of school for teachers and the mood was giddy. They had said goodbye to the kids of Seven Oaks Elementary that Wednesday. Now, the teachers bustled about, finishing paperwork, doing last-minute things, bubbling about summer plans. They love their students -- but man, oh man, they needed a break.

Carmela "Mela" Gallagher, a 38-year-old special education teacher, hugged her friends hard and told them she loved them. To some, it might seem strange to tell co-workers this. But Gallagher wasn't the type to keep feelings bottled in. If she loved you, she loved you and she was going to tell you, sincerely and often. She told that to her boss, the principal of Seven Oaks. She told that to a mother of one of her students every Friday, at the school's car loop.

After work, Gallagher took her son, Stephen, to Busch Gardens to celebrate. Stephen will be a third-grader this coming year at Seven Oaks.

At the park, Gallagher had an aneurysm. It was a freak thing -- a weakened blood vessel, like an overinflated balloon, silently growing inside while life seemed so fine outside. It makes no sense.

Gallagher died three days later, on May 28.

Her family and friends are devastated. This is expected in death. But Gallagher was so good. She loved her special needs kids, whose needs range from learning disabilities to autism. Gallagher had patience beyond measure.

"There was magic in her teaching," principal B.J. Smith said.

Gallagher was one of those people whose selflessness seemed without end. She honestly cared about people. She gave and gave of herself but it never seemed to make her weary. Instead, it energized her. She was a listener, a rescuer, a caregiver and a confidant. She hugged hard and often -- equally with loved ones or strangers she had just befriended. She loved laughing and Starbucks coffee and her family, Stephen and her husband, Mark. Gallagher grew up in this area. Her parents, Bob and Ann Marie Capanzano, still live in Tampa. One sister, Maryann DeVivio, is in Wesley Chapel. The other, Angela Campbell, is in Georgia. They, of course, are heartbroken.

When a teacher or student dies, grief counselors swoop in to the school to help. They give children crayons and ask them to draw cards for the family. They get kids talking about favorite memories. They hold teachers as they sob. But, with Gallagher, school was out. The visitation and funeral are done. Now they are on their own to deal with their grief. One outlet they've found is a guest book linked to her obituary on the Loyless Funeral Home Web site.

Here are some of the things they've said:

"You were the best teacher in the world! I love you very much! I will always miss you! Love, Matthew Coton"

"I only met Mela a few times, but she always made me feel like I belonged."

"Hard to believe just a week ago, we were standing in line for lunch, talking about summer plans. There was Carmela, laughing about something Stephen had said to her and sharing excitement about his upcoming tournament. How fitting that her last moments on earth were spent with the one she loved the most -- Stephen. Carmela, I am grateful to have known you. Every time I drink a Starbucks, I will raise my cup towards heaven and think of you. SOES is a different place because of you!"

"It was a gift from God that Mela entered our life 6 years ago. She is a healer for children and families that others would not willingly teach. She performs miracles and transformed our home. She is living proof that One Life Can Change the World."

"I loved miss gallagher. She ment a hole world to me. That woman meant a lot she is always going to be speshel because she taught me things that i could never understand. ... You will always be in my heart. Remember the great things of her and she will think of you. Stephen it will be all right you have people around you that love you like me. ... madi baker

SHE IS MY HERO. ... still and forever ..."

"I love you and I miss you. I loved the way you read Charlotte's Web to us. You are the best teacher!"

True to Gallagher's spirit, she is still giving. She was an organ donor.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or 813 909-4609.

Fast Facts:

In her memory

The family is asking that any donations be made to:

Anchor Program Fund Inc. Lido Beach Town Park, Lido Beach , NY 11561.

This is a camp for special needs kids where Carmela Gallagher was a volunteer.