MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – “I would be what you maybe would call the peacekeeper.”
Heidi O’Toole knew from kindergarten that she wanted to help others.
“Kids were playing on the playground, and there was one little girl standing by herself on the other side of the playground. So, I maneuvered through all the kids who were playing and walked up to the little girl who was by herself, and I said ‘hi, my name is Heidi! What’s your name?’ And she said, ‘my name is Phyllis’, and Phyllis, to this day, is my very best friend. She was being excluded because she was African American,” said O’Toole.
Heidi soon found herself at West Virginia University on scholarship as an athlete, hoping to major in physical and special education. She later became a teacher, teaching in Monongalia and Preston counties.
O’Toole coached boy’s basketball, which was a success. The team had won the county championship that year.
O’Toole had also coached baseball at the time. The team won the sectional title, but then the coaching position was eliminated by the Preston County Board of Education to prevent the team from moving on to the regional tournament, as they did not want a women coach to advance.
According to O’Toole, the community rallied behind her at the board meeting.
“You aren’t hurting me, you are hurting the players. They have earned the right to compete,” O’Toole told the BOE at the time.
She decided that would be her last year of teaching in Preston County with the help of a mentor.
“I finished out the school year, and you know what she shared with me? She goes, ‘I think it’s time for you to go do something else. I think it is time for you to go be of service in another way,'” said O’Toole.
O’Toole worked on a cruise ship and found herself advocating for people again. After the stint, she went back to teaching in Florida, once again helping kids.
“It was the crack epidemic. I saw my students being victimized by, unfortunately, their parents becoming addicted to crack,” said O’Toole.
The experience pushed O’Toole to go back to school at WVU to get her master’s in counseling. She now operates her own practice, WV Therapy and Wellness Center in Morgantown. The practice opened in 2010 to address the adverse effects of the opioid epidemic on West Virginia communities. According to O’Toole, there is a high correlation between addiction and trauma.
“If you’re in active addiction, you’re living in trauma,” said O’Toole.
She also works as a teaching instructor for the very same school that helped her with her education, West Virginia University, teaching graduate students how to become counselors in the Department of Counseling and Learning Sciences.
Her office, originally a storage closet, is filled with student projects—which is special to her.
“I felt this is a shared space. This isn’t my office—this is a space for the students to come. But it’s also a place where we can display and honor their learning experience and how they apply what it is that they’re learning,” said O’Toole.
And she did all of this—while caring for her sick parents, who passed away in 2018 and 2020.
She’s helped many individuals, students, families, and patients get their lives back on track. And she feels that’s her duty in life.
“I believe it’s an honor and a privilege to be of service, and that truly is what I believe my purpose is to be of service,” said O’Toole. “My purpose, my passion, my ministry, is to be of service. It is who I am.”