December 2018

Fifty years in special education: “a gift”

After 50 years’ service to the special education and disability sector, including 30 years in various roles at Mater Dei School in Camden, New South Wales, Sister Jeanie Heininger will retire at the close of the 2018 school year.

Jeanie began her ministry at Mater Dei in 1968 as a 23-year-old teacher when it was operating as a boarding school. She later served as principal and executive director, and most recently, has been Mater Dei’s chaplain, a ministry that has involved the pastoral care of students, families and staff.

Mater Dei was established in 1957 by the Good Samaritan Sisters and in 2018, under the auspices of Good Samaritan Education, provides a range of services for children with special needs. Jeanie’s chaplaincy duties have extended right across those services, which start with early intervention programs for pre-schoolers, and include the school with its 143 students from Kinder to Year 12, and a work and community pathways program for young adults.

“It is difficult to think of a single other person who would be so readily identified as integral to the life of our community as Jeanie. Everybody knows Jeanie and everybody loves Jeanie,” said Mater Dei Principal Tony Fitzgerald.

“Apart from the professional contribution that Jeanie has made to the evolution of Mater Dei in her roles as principal, teacher and more recently, chaplain, Jeanie embodies in so many ways the heart of our work.

“She has an abundance of kindness for everyone in our community; she has high hopes for our students; she is and has always been ever-present and available to the whole of our community; she is and has been our greatest ambassador, our best advocate; and she combines all of this with a wonderful and generous spirit of love and laughter, of empathy and effort, and compassion and kindness.”

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

In that time she has also undertaken undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in special education and pastoral theology from tertiary institutions within Australia and overseas.

In 2007, as part of celebrations to mark Mater Dei’s 50th anniversary and the Good Samaritan Sisters’ sesquicentenary, Jeanie edited and contributed to Journey to the Heart: Mater Dei 50 Years, 50 Stories, a book which continues to be read and re-read.

In 2015, Jeanie received the NSW Government’s Camden Woman of the Year Award for her contribution to the special education and disability sector.

Reflecting on her ministry over the last 50 years, Jeanie said it had “all been a gift” to her.

“People think it’s been hard, and it has been hard. There were hard years and hard moments, and it’ll be hard leaving. But it’s been a gift, and not everyone gets a gift like that,” she said.

“As I look back of course, in hindsight, it’s always good to be able to do that, it’s a gift of a lifetime and I’m so thankful that I’ve had this opportunity.”

Jeanie said she is retiring from Mater Dei mostly for health reasons and while she feels “mixed”, she knows it is the right time.

Jeanie hopes to remain connected with the Mater Dei community and where possible, looks forward to continuing her life-long work of supporting people and families who live with disability when she moves to the newly-established community of Good Samaritan Sisters at Glebe, in Sydney, in early 2019.

The Good Oil

‘The Good Oil’, the free, monthly e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters, publishes news, feature and opinion articles and reflective content which aims to nourish the spirit, stimulate thinking and encourage reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues from a Good Samaritan perspective.

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