Knights’ youth of the year helps Cambodian orphanage

SPARTANBURG — When the Knights of Columbus look for a candidate for their youth of the year award, they look for strength of character and attention to duty. This year, Brendan O’Connell, 14, stood out from all the rest.

The rising ninth-grader from St. Paul the Apostle School already had a long list of accomplishments on his resume, but one in particular set him apart from his competitors.

Brendan managed to raise $10,000 to help a Cambodian orphanage pay for a new water treatment system.

“It was such a selfless act,” said Paul Kountz. “That’s what really made him stand out.” Kountz is a member of Council 6076, which chose Brendan as their youth of the year and then passed his name on to the state committee.

Brendan was recognized as the Knights of Columbus South Carolina Council Youth of the Year at an awards breakfast in Columbia May 6 and by the local council June 30.

Kountz said the young man went above and beyond his duty to community, which in this case extended across the globe.

Brendan visited the third-world country last summer with his father, Colman, and could not get the children he met out of his mind.

“The kids are so happy and grateful for what they have, even though the orphanage was just a tin shack,” he said. “They didn’t expect anything from me, they were just glad I was there.”

They may not have had any expectations, but they are about to receive $10,000. Brendan has already set another goal to raise money for an electric generator that will provide running water and lights for the orphans.

He said he didn’t do anything special to raise the money. Brendan just told people the story and asked for donations.

Kountz said his council was so impressed by the young man’s presentation that they donated $1,500 to the cause.

Brendan also received help from his grandparents, who “asked the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker” for donations, his grandmother, Aline O’Connell, said with a laugh.

“He’s just a lovely boy,” she said. “I’ve never heard him say no whenever anyone asks him to do anything.”

His mother, Anne, said the trip to Cambodia changed Brendan’s view of the world even more than she imagined it would. He saw first-hand the reality of poverty and realized how much he has in material luxuries, she said.

“He always wants to do good, and I think this has really encouraged him,” she said.

Brendan’s principal and teachers also noticed a difference in him upon his return.  

“He came back from Cambodia a changed young man,” said Patricia Lanthier. “He really matured.”

Lanthier is principal at St. Paul the Apostle, where Brendan was an honor student and officer on student council.

She said she will miss Brendan, who is moving on to high school this year, but she is sure he will do well.

As president of the St. Paul Chapter of the National Junior Beta Club, he led an effort to collect Christmas gifts for children at a local soup kitchen. He was a member of the school’s Battle of the Brains team, which is listed in the top eight among the 38 schools that compete. Brendan also is fluent in Spanish and earned a silver medal in that division of the Foreign Language Declamation at Clemson University in December 2006.  

But Brendan is not all business. In fact, he is far from it, according to one teacher.

“My standout memory of Brendan is his sense of humor,” said Faith Alspaugh, his eighth-grade teacher. “He is a natural comic with great timing in all the quips, quotes and comebacks he presented the class with each day. There were times when I just had to bow down behind my desk, laugh uproariously and try to regain my composure.”

His grandmother also noted his wit. Aline said that her grandson had a tough time pronouncing the children’s names while he was at the orphanage, so he tagged them with basic American monikers like Jim, Joe and Jerry.

Aside from his ability to raise huge sums of money, Brendan is a typical boy who likes to hang out with friends, play video games and swim.

He said that is what he will be doing until the end of July, when he and his father will return to the orphanage in Cambodia. He will be 15 then and this time, his 13-year-old brother, Daniel, will go too. His sister, Christine, is 11 and is still too young for the trip, according to his mother. The whole family may travel to Cambodia together in a couple of years, however.

In the meantime, Brendan said he can’t wait to see the children again and dive into the wonderful food he remembered from his last adventure.