More Than A Meal

Shawn Heckler, a meal deliverer for the Tucker County Senior Center, connects with seniors in spite of his disability.

By Evan Moore | 12/14/2010

Shawn Heckler is revered as the most reliable and hardest working meal deliverer at the Tucker County Senior Center. Heckler completes his 25-mile route through Parsons and the surrounding countryside with enthusiasm and dedication that is inspiring to others.

Add steady dependability, good rapport with the seniors on his route, and an infectious smile, and he sounds like the perfect employee, but that’s not the only reason he is remarkable.

Heckler also faces challenges every day that make the most mundane tasks more difficult. Born with cerebral palsy, he is 85 percent deaf and has trouble walking, both common symptoms of the sometimes crippling disease. That hasn’t stopped him from excelling at his work though.

“He knows how important that lunch is to those seniors, and he makes every effort to get there,” said Roxanne Tuesing, Executive Director of the Tucker County Senior Center. “I’m just so grateful that he is so dedicated to his job.”

Heckler started working for the senior center on a volunteer basis when extra help was needed delivering meals across the county. He was later asked to join the staff and work full-time. “I suggested that maybe Shawn should try,” said Faithe “Luanna” Bava, Heckler’s mother and the Registered Nurse Supervisor of In-Home Care at the senior center. “He tried and loved it. They loved him and that’s been 12 years ago.”

Heckler’s inability to hear the seniors was a cause for concern when Heckler was originally hired, but he quickly proved it would not get in the way of his job regardless of the challenge. “With the seniors it’s mostly pen and paper,” said Tuesing. Heckler frequently brings requests on paper back to the senior center.

“He will bring us back grocery lists if somebody out on the route needs a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread to get them through the weekend,” said Tuesing. “He’ll bring those notes back and we’ll take care of those things.”

Heckler communicates with seniors in other ways too. Even though many of the seniors do not know sign language, that doesn’t stop them from trying. Simple gestures such as rubbing one’s stomach to indicate hunger, giving a thumbs-up as a thank you, or even a simple wave can be of great importance when you cannot rely on the spoken word.

Heckler also reads lips, which allows for short, simple discourse between he and the lunch recipients. For some seniors, that might be the only regular dialogue they have, which makes his job that much more important.

“He doesn’t stop until he sees the person, and that’s one of the critical aspects of our program,” said Tuesing. “It’s a safety check in addition to a meal. If somebody doesn’t answer the door, he will come back right then, and we will start the process to find out where that person is.”

Sometimes, Heckler discovers the seniors are home but in need of help. “He found one lady that had fallen, and [he] went out and stopped traffic to get someone in there to help her because her head was bleeding. He communicates one way or another,” said Bava with a smile. Even though Heckler is plenty capable alone, it never hurts to have a helping hand in those situations.

“Just last week he went to deliver a lunch and an elderly gentleman had slid out of his mobile scooter,” said Tuesing. “Shawn, with the assistance of his girlfriend Cheryl, who helps him deliver the lunches, somehow managed to get this very large gentleman back up into his chair.”

Cheryl Greaver is completely hearing impaired but chooses to volunteer and ride with Shawn to help him deliver lunches. After meeting as teenagers at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind in Romney, W.Va., Heckler and Greaver reunited seven years ago and have been together since. According to Bava, Heckler and Greaver compliment and understand each other better because they face similar communication barriers.

“She’s kind of his right arm, so to speak,” said Bava. “If there is somewhere he can’t get the meal to, she will get out and take it. They kind of balance each other. It’s almost like they read each other’s minds.”

It is particularly helpful to have another pair of hands during the winter months when Tucker County often finds itself under a coat of ice and snow. Since Heckler already faces a greater degree of difficulty walking, the challenges generated by wintery conditions are often compounded. “If you saw some of the places he goes,” said Bava, referring to the steep, hilly terrain common on Heckler’s route, “Just put ice on those places, and it gets kind of hairy.”

Although he takes his work seriously, Heckler’s life doesn’t stop once he gets home. He is also a photographer, hunter, and he avidly rides the Hatfield and McCoy ATV trails in southern West Virginia.

“When you look at the problems he has had with his health in his lifetime, you would think that most people in that situation would just sit at home and watch TV or not go out and do things,” said Tuesing. “He does a lot of things you would not expect him to do.”

Tuesing claims she sees the same work-oriented, motivated attitude in Heckler’s parents and grandparents as well. However, Heckler’s mother is at a loss when it comes to the origins of his ambition. “Where does he get the motivation? I don’t know,” said Bava with a laugh. “I really don’t.”

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