September 2014

An abiding commitment to disability care

Good Samaritan Sister Jeanie Heininger is enormously thankful that God called her to dedicate her life to people with disability and their families, and gave her the grace to step out into the unknown.

BY Debra Vermeer

When Good Samaritan Sister, Jeanie Heininger was asked, out of the blue, as a young nun and trainee teacher, to specialise in special education, she almost said no, because it wasn’t the teaching path she’d dreamed of. Thankfully, after prayer, she said yes, a decision which she says changed her life forever.

Jeanie has now been immersed in the special education and disability sector for about 45 years. She works two-and-a-half days a week as chaplain at Mater Dei School in Camden, a school in the Wollongong Diocese for children with special needs, operated by Good Samaritan Education. On the other days, she works with parish volunteers in the Macarthur and Shoalhaven deaneries of the Wollongong Diocese and visits families.

“Reflecting on those 45 years, I realise it nearly didn’t happen,” she laughs.

She recalls how when she was at the Good Samaritan Sisters’ teaching college, the principal, Sister Augustine, called her into her office one Friday afternoon and said she had seen certain gifts in her and asked if she would consider doing an extra year of study in special education, and take up teaching at Mater Dei.

“I was very young,” she says. “And I spent that whole weekend, tossing and turning in bed and trying to pray about it. For most of the weekend, I thought I might as well be honest and go in on Monday and say ‘no, that’s not what I want to do’.

“I wanted to be like all the other Good Sams I’d heard of in the groups above us who were going to North Queensland and South Australia and the outback to teach. I thought that sounded wonderful. I’d grown up in Wollongong, so I thought ‘who wants to go to Camden?’”

But late in that weekend, Jeanie says she began to feel that she needed to give the matter more serious consideration.

“I thought, ‘this is really God talking here, and I need to think about it more’, given that I’d made a vow of obedience. I thought, ‘there must be something to this’.

“So, in the end, I went back the next morning and I couldn’t believe I was doing it, but I said yes. And my whole life went in a completely different direction from that moment.”

Despite feeling that she was responding to God’s will, Jeanie says her first year of teaching at Mater Dei was difficult.

“To tell you the truth, I absolutely hated it,” she says.

“It was a boarding school then, in 1968, with 62 female boarders, so you were there, all week, all weekend, all term, and there weren’t a lot of us there to share this enormous job. So I didn’t like it. I found it very, very hard and sort of diminishing in some way.”

But eventually, thanks to the children themselves, something began to change in the way that Jeanie felt about her work.

“Although it was difficult, as the year drew on, there were moments, glimpses of something. I started to really love the children and I could see that they really drew the best out of people,” she says.

“I could see this particularly in their interaction with the many wonderful volunteers we had at the school. I thought, ‘it’s interesting that all of these children who I’m finding so difficult to teach, they draw the best out of other people’.

“So, I think towards the end of that first year, I had a bit of a conversion and I really felt in solidarity with the children and in solidarity with the parents as well. I could see that it was a family thing, it wasn’t just the child. Their disability touched the parents, it touched the siblings, it touched the grandparents.”

Jeanie says that at around that time she was struck by the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:5: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”.

“And that struck me, because the proper title of the Good Sams is the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict, and St Benedict talks about welcoming people.

“I don’t really think about any of this on a daily basis – I just do what I’m asked to do and what I can see needs doing – however, after 45 years, I think the disability community is sort of wired into my brain and I just automatically think in a different way to a lot of people.”

After 10 years at Mater Dei, Jeanie was asked by her superior to undertake further study. She gained her Bachelor of Special Education from Monash University in 1978-79. Ten years later she studied a combined course in Pastoral Theology through Regis College in Toronto Canada and Regis University in Denver, USA.

Upon returning to Australia, Jeanie followed an action-research model over 18 months, working with different groups of parents of children with disabilities in Broken Bay and Parramatta Dioceses, recording their experiences, insights, effects on family life, relationships with Church, medical professionals and schools. She was awarded a Masters Degree in 1991.

After completing her study she continued in the disability sector, working over the years at Mater Dei, and for a number of dioceses, including the Sydney Archdiocese, Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese and Parramatta and Broken Bay Dioceses.

Over four decades, Jeanie worked at the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission, the Australian Catholic Disability Commission and CatholicCare, and has been involved with a number of ground-breaking initiatives in disability care, including the establishment of early intervention centres.

“In the 1990s, CatholicCare in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese received funding from the ACT government, and with them, I helped open five group homes for adults with an intellectual disability. It was absolutely marvellous,” she says.

“Later, we opened two cottages for those with acquired brain injury. Those homes are still operating now, and when I go to Canberra I pop in and see how it’s all going, and catch up with the people there, which is lovely.

“I worked with some very good people on those initiatives, not just in CatholicCare, but there were good people, kindred spirits, threaded through government and institutions everywhere.”

Today, Jeanie’s work as chaplain for Mater Dei involves pastoral care for students, families (including foster families) and staff.

One aspect of that pastoral care is to focus on needs surrounding grief.

“Everyone who comes to Mater Dei will tell you that it is a very happy place, but even so, the underlying experience of just about everyone is grief,” she says.

“When the parents get that diagnosis, it takes a long while to grieve the lost child. The child they were so excited about having is no longer there.

“Once each term at Mater Dei, I conduct a program called ‘Nurturing Independence’, for a small group of parents, trying to cast a positive light on the very difficult experience of parenting a child with a disability. You’ve always got to bring a box of tissues to those sessions. Having said that, we also laugh a lot. There are wonderful stories, but also very difficult stories.”

Jeanie’s chaplaincy duties extend right across the works of Mater Dei, which start with early intervention programs which serve 200 pre-schoolers, and include the school with its 147 students from K-12, and a living skills program, which centres on the four group homes for students who have turned 12. If the parents choose this invitation, 12 year-olds sleep over for one night per week and gradually throughout secondary school this can increase.

In her wider work for the Wollongong Diocese, she has established a group called the Good News Community, which meets once a month. It is based on the concepts of the French-Canadian philosopher and disability theologian, Jean Vanier, of whom Jeanie is a great admirer. The Good News Community brings together volunteers to help organise special Masses for people with disability, where all get involved in activities such as miming the Gospel story.

Looking to the future of disability care in Australia, Jeanie welcomes the federal government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme, which aims to fund personalised housing and employment pathways for adults with disability, but says adequate funding for the scheme will be difficult to achieve.

“I don’t think people have any idea what it is going to cost the government budget,” she says. “And even for families to navigate all the paper work and bureaucracy, you’re going to need large teams of very dedicated social workers to help with that. I completely support the idea, but I fear for its viability.”

On the other hand, Jeanie says she is greatly encouraged by the movement in the area of the theology of disability. She recently attended a Broken Bay Institute presentation by visiting Scottish professor, John Swinton, and says it was wonderful to hear his work on the themes of time, hospitality, and belonging and to see the wide cross-section of people gathered to listen.

“It encourages me very much,” she says. “I get a bit tearful when I hear these people because it’s wonderful to hear younger people coming through with marvellous insights. I do rejoice in it all.”

As she looks back, Jeanie says she is enormously thankful that God called her to dedicate her life to people with disability and their families, and gave her the grace to step out into the unknown.

“I said ‘thankyou’ to Jesus for all this, just the other day,” she says. “And I said to him ‘what a gift this has all been to me’.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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