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Photo by Benjamin Brayfield (photo by Benjamin Brayfield)

BROADWAY — There’s a saying that suggests walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is the best way to understand that person’s perspective on life. Try walking 120 miles in Blue Mc Donnell’s sneakers.

The Santa Monica resident recently returned from a 120 mile pilgrimage walk through northern Spain, during which she raised $12,000 for the Southern California nonprofit School on Wheels that tutors homeless children.

“My mother has been talking about [the walk] since I was a child and she never did it,” Mc Donnell, an Irish native, said. “I decided that I would try to raise money for our organization, School on Wheels, since I was doing the walk anyway.”

As tutor coordinator for the Westside region of School on Wheels, Mc Donnell recognized the organization’s need for outside donations and support, so she turned her mother’s life-long dream into a fundraising campaign, appealing to friends and family via e-mails and printed T-shirts. O’Brien’s Irish Pub and Restaurant on Wilshire also donated to the cause.

Mc Donnell began the walk with her mother and sisters-in-law on June 23 in Saria, Spain and ended six days later in Santiago de Compostela, passing through forests, villages and farmyards along the way.

Though she trained for the pilgrimage by walking five miles a day, she said it was her 73-year-old mother who outshone the rest of the group, even coming prepared for two days of unexpected rain.

“She had brilliant boots. I was soaking and she was bone dry. I was pouring water out of my shoes, but it was good fun,” she said.

The walk was not Mc Donnell’s first experience with travel and adventure.

Born and raised in County Clare, Ireland, she moved to Paris at the age of 18 to study French at the Sorbonne. She then moved to London to study embalming and worked in a funeral home for three years before transferring to Germany to work on dissections for an anatomy textbook.

“It’s really cool to see the inside of someone instead of just the out, you know, even if they are dead,” she said.

It was after she’d moved back to Ireland that Mc Donnell decided to relocate to the United States, finding a job driving 18-wheelers across the country. She then studied theater at the KD Acting Conservatory of the Southwest in Dallas, Texas.

Acting was what finally brought her to Santa Monica in 2002, but it’s her work with School on Wheels that keeps her here. She started as one of nearly 1,000 volunteers who serve Southern California from Santa Barbara to San Pedro before she was asked to work for the organization.

Mc Donnell said that every time children move, they can become up to four months behind in their education. At the Salvation Army in Westwood she tutored these children to help them catch up in school.

"They’re like every other kid. They’ve got the same hopes and dreams and wants as every other kid but they face different challenges than regular kids face,” she said, adding that many students fear that their peers will discover they are homeless.

It was at the shelter in Westwood, a two-year transitional home for families, that Mc Donnell met and began working with Narciso.

At 13, Narciso lived at the shelter with his mother and 7 siblings. Mc Donnell remembered that he was shy when they first began the tutoring sessions but she immediately recognized his intelligence.

After two years with Narciso, his family moved from the shelter to federally subsidized, low-income housing. At one of their final tutoring sessions, Narciso’s mom confessed that he had been crying and asking not to move so he could continue his meetings with Mc Donnell.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Mc Donnell, who continued teaching him at the public library near his new home.

Narciso is now a high school senior and living in Las Vegas with his family. Mc Donnell still tutors him over the phone and he visited Los Angeles during his spring break. She’s now working to provide him with a college scholarship to study either computer graphics or architecture.

"He’s a really intelligent kid. I mean, he gets all As. He loves to learn,” she said.

Mc Donnell now supervises tutors at locations throughout the Westside, including Upward Bound on Wilshire in Santa Monica and Bible Tabernacle in Venice.

She splits her time between School on Wheels and a private hypnotherapy practice where she works to help patients give up smoking, learn to diet, manage stress and improve life quality.

“It’s really effective, it’s really good,” she said of hypnosis. “It’s kind of like having a massage in your brain. You feel really good after it.”

Mc Donnell enjoys living in Santa Monica but said she misses life back in Ireland and returns once a year to visit her family. When she’s in Southern California, she connects with her roots by meeting with other Irish natives at O’Brien’s.

“They have really good Guiness, which is a good thing for us Irish people. A lot of the Irish crowd go in,” she said, noting that she likes talking with other Irish expatriates because she doesn’t have to tone down her accent.

When’s she’s not at the pub, Mc Donnell can also be found on the beach or hiking the Santa Monica Mountains. Her love of life and learning keeps her busy by going back to school or trying out new hobbies and skills.

“If I were younger, I would study medicine,” she said. “But I’m too old. I’m going to go and study Spanish, and I’m very interested in geography. I think it’s a fun kind of thing.”

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