A friend to those with special needs

| December 18, 2013 | 0 Comments
Donna Heins, right, gives a high five to Melissa, a participant in the faith formation program for adults with special needs at St. Odilia in Shoreview. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Donna Heins, right, gives a high five to Melissa, a participant in the faith formation program for adults with special needs at St. Odilia in Shoreview. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

By Dave Hrbacek and Dianne Towalski

Donna Heins generally tries to duck the spotlight, preferring instead to stay in the background.

But that all changes when she spots the participants in her faith formation program for adults with special needs at St. Odilia in Shore­view.

On a recent Tuesday evening, she stood in the gym to greet the men and women who came with their parents, guardians and caregivers.

She spotted a young woman named Melissa, pointed to her, then dashed across the gym to say hello. The bubbly girl jumped out of her chair and opened her arms wide for a hug. That was soon followed by a beaming grin and a high five.

Donna wasn’t through. She continued to circulate around the gym, offering smiles and words of welcome to dozens of people there to celebrate Christmas. During the program, two men led the group in Christmas carols, and even a fully-dressed Santa Claus, complete with a real white beard, made an appearance. He handed out gifts to all, and Donna later gave personalized gifts to every participant, with the help of Boy Scout volunteers.

Thanks to her efforts, there was nothing second-rate about this celebration. One of the highlights came when Claudia Munson read the Christmas story. She is another organizer of the program, who had to leave her job as a teacher at St. Odilia School when she suffered a stroke. She’s just getting back on her feet, and she read the story beautifully. She is not about to let go of her involvement in this program.

For Donna, it all started in the 1970s, when she started volunteering with the Sunday school program at St. Odilia. She even wrote the curriculum for the program.

Over the years, she continued to volunteer and work for the parish part-time in various capacities, all while working full-time as a recreational therapist for senior citizens at Lake Ridge Health Care Center in Roseville.

Volunteers from the parish, including Donna, began working with developmentally disabled persons, visiting Ramsey County’s Lake Owasso Residence, a group home in Shoreview.

After a while, a new administration at the home asked them not to visit because of concerns about separation of church and state, but parents of some of the residents asked the parish to start the program again because they wanted faith formation for their children, Donna said.

She was able to adapt the curriculum she had written for the Sunday school program to work with adults with special needs. She was eventually hired full-time at the parish cooridinating the program held at the parish, which is now called Sp.R.ED. (Special Religious Education), as well as two other programs — Sunday morning preschool and vacation Bible school.

She was working full time and raising three children, but her husband encouraged her to quit her job at the care center and take the job at the parish. He knew she would enjoy it, Donna said.

The current program is a carefully-balanced experience, with social and community-building aspects, music and religious instruction suitable for the developmental levels of the participants, said Lucy Arimond, director of Faith Formation for the parish.

Though she did not have any previous experience working with special needs people, the adults who come faithfully each week have won over Donna’s heart.

“Oh my gosh, it’s incredible,” said Donna, who turned 79 not long after this year’s Christmas program Dec. 10. “They’re so pure and simple and holy, and they love each other. They have their behaviors, but they just come in and they’re just full of life.”

John Cundy, 38, a resident at Lake Owasso group home, has been attending Sp.R.ED classes for several years.

“I love going,” he said. “I learn more about God, meet new friends and hang out with old friends.”

During the early years, Donna would have a list of 14 people who were interested in the program, with as few as three or four actually showing up each session. Now, the list has grown to nearly 100 people, with about 60 to 70 coming on a given night. They range in age from 18 to 70-plus.

“They look forward to it,” she said. “I’ll send out the registrations in August, and I’ll get 10, maybe 15 out of 60 or 70 [sign up]. And on the first night of class, 100 people show up.”

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Category: From Age to Age