Mokena’s first D.A.R.E. officer and a pioneer of many community policing programs has retired. Sgt. Mark O’Donnell is stepping down after 24 years of service to the community.
O’Donnell implemented the first D.A.R.E. program in Will County in the Mokena Elementary schools in 1989, and in his six years at the post, he taught more than 1,400 children.
Many of those children, now grown up with kids of their own, still recognize him, O’Donnell said. He’s been invited to wedding, helped them out when they were in trouble, and waved to them when he saw them on the street.
O’Donnell said he used to encourage kids to wave at police officers as a way to build good relationships with them.
“D.A.R.E was the first program that brought kids and police together in a positive way,” he said.
After leaving the D.A.R.E. program in 1995, O’Donnell went back on patrol, was promoted to sergeant and became a street supervisor. During his career he also promoted the Neighborhood Watch program and worked as a juvenile officer and a crime prevention officer. O’Donnell also receive a letter of commendation in 1994 after he entered a burning house to search for possible occupants. The house was empty, but O’Donnell was injured during his efforts to save lives.
But it was another challenge in 2002 that most tested O’Donnell’s strength and commitment: he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He took a leave of absence for a year and a half while he learned about his illness and adjusted to medications.
During this time his fellow police officers, business owners and community members rallied behind him and threw a benefit at the Thunder Bowl in Mokena. O’Donnell said he was overwhelmed with the support. “It was unbelievable,” he said.
“I thought there’d be 100 people there,” he said. “There were 1,000. That’s when I knew I had touched people’s lives.”
A call from Mayor Joe Werner convinced O’Donnell it was time to get back to work. He received clearance from his doctor and resumed his duties in 2004. “I came back, and I came back strong,” O’Donnell said.
Werner recognized O’Donnell during the village board meeting on Jan. 10 with a proclamation of thanks. Werner said it’s popular to say someone leaves big shoes to fill, but in O’Donnell’s case, he believes the footprints he left will stay forever in the community.
“The involvement he’s had and the impact he’s had are immeasurable,” Werner said of O’Donnell. “He dedicated himself to something he strongly believed in – safety – and what can you say to thank someone for that?”
Chief Randy Rajewski listed many of O’Donnell’s achievements in establishing community policing programs. “All those programs will continue to move forward because of the solid foundation he laid for them,” Rajewski said later.
O’Donnell lives in Mokena with his wife, Teri, and their three children, Ryan, 13, Nicole, 12, and Lauren, 10. Teri O’Donnell is also a D.A.R.E. officer and commander with the Country Club Hills Police Department. “She outranks me at work and at home,” Mark O'Donnell joked.
After retirement, O’Donnell said he plans to devote some time to his kids.