BY JEFF FALK
ASSUMPTION HILL – One must be careful when looking into Adrienne Heilman’s eyes. For if one looks hard enough and long enough, there is a mirror with our reflection in it.
And there are things about the person looking back at us that we might not always feel comfortable about.
But if one looks even harder and longer into Heilman’s eyes, we can see her soul, and all the things that are pure and positive and right about ourselves. Things like loyalty and joy and simplicity.
Despite the fact that Heilman is afflicted with Down syndrome, she’s not all that different than you and I. She’s just a person making her way in this world, doing the best she can along the way.
One of the places Heilman’s life has drawn her to is a hard seat in the middle of a bleacher situated in a small Chestnut Street gymnasium, directly across a court from the Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball team’s bench. You could say that Heilman knows what she likes when she sees it.
“The games are exciting,” said Heilman. “They’re happy. I just root for Lebanon Catholic. Nobody else. None of the other schools. Because my family went here.”
“Adrienne is the number one Beaver girls’ basketball fan of all-time,” said Catholic’s Patti Hower, the all-time winningest basketball coach in Lebanon County history. “And it’s because of her loyalty. It’s been 20-some years since she was my water girl. And she’s been around ever since.”
Heilman has become as much a fixture with Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball as solid fundamentals, championships and Hower herself. She hasn’t missed a Beaver game in for as long as anyone can remember, at least not a home one.
“I yell at the refs sometimes,” said Heilman, a Lebanon city resident, “because the other fans do it. But I’m not nervous.
“I only come to the home games,” Heilman added. “I like this place. I’ve been to every home game this year.”
“Some of the little things we take for granted, she appreciates it so much,” said Hower. “She appreciates so much, and you can just see how happy she is. Before every game she comes over and gives me a hug. And after every game she comes over and gives me a hug. And sometimes it’s like, ‘Hey, that feels good.'”
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of the 21st chromosome. It can cause physical growth delays and is recognizable by a certain sets of facial characteristics and degrees of intellectual disabilities.
Down syndrome is the most common chromosome abnormality in people. Approximately 1.4 per 1,000 babies born in the United States each year are afflicted with Down syndrome, according to Wikipedia.
“Patti Hower is my favorite coach,” said Heilman, 37. “Definitely Patti Hower. She’s a nice lady. She’s nice to me all the time. She knows my sisters.
“This year, my favorite player is Sam Fortna,” Heilman added, “because her sisters played for Patti Hower.”
“I hope I’m her favorite coach,” said Hower. “That’s one fan I can count on. It’s nice having Adrienne in your corner.”
Heilman first became involved with the Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball program as an honorary manager, in the early 1990s when sisters Iris and Rachel Heilman were playing for the Beavers. All three Heilmans were part of the 1992 Lebanon Catholic squad that captured the Class A state championship.
“I was the ball girl and water girl,” said Heilman, who herself was once a basketball player as part of Lebanon County Special Olympics. “I was 16. I have a CD (commemorating that year) and watch it all the time.
“I was so happy and proud,” Heilman added. “And I was crying. I was crying because I was happy.”
“I think it goes back to her sisters playing,” said Hower. “She feels the connection. A lot of our fans back then are our fans now. It’s like a family for her. She was the manager and she was proud to be our water girl, and she wanted it to continue.
“The fact that she comes to our games, she gets more enjoyment out of that than a new video game,” Hower continued. “They have a great family, but if she couldn’t get to games, she’d call around for a ride. And she’s gotten to the point where she’s become independent, and she’s proud of it. Sometimes she’ll come up to me and say, ‘I’m here by myself. I’m here by myself.'”
Twice this season, Heilman has sat with Hower and the Beavers on the bench as an honorary assistant coach. They were learning experiences for everyone involved.
“I got to be an assistant coach,” said Heilman. “I had to ask Patti first. She’s the boss, and I got to help her. She has a clipboard and I got to hold it for her. She’s my best friend of mine. I love the coaches.”
“She had a little speech planned for the players,” said Hower. “She told them to play hard. When she was doing it you could see her face beaming, and smiling from ear-to-ear.
“The girls give her high-5s, and Adrienne likes hugs too,” Hower continued. “They (the players) don’t really know Adrienne, but they know she’s one of our fans. But they can see how much it meant to her.”
Though it’s more about the socializing than the pay, Heilman has been an employee of the Lebanon Wal-Mart for 15 years. During that time, Adrienne has earned a promotion and was honored as an Employee of the Year.
“I fold towels and get all the returns,” said Heilman. “I love my job. I’ve got a lot of friends. I like to work and I like to socialize.”
“Whenever I go to Wal-Mart I look for Adrienne,” said Hower. “And whenever I see her she tells me, ‘I can’t wait for basketball season.'”
As Adrienne’s mother, I want everyone to know that our family very much appreciates the kindness the Lebanon Catholic community on Assumption Hill extends to Adrienne. If it were not for there honest interest in her well-being, we would not be comfortable with allowing Adrienne to attend the games without being accompanied by a friend or family member. As any parent knows, when your child becomes independent there is always a bit of anxiety and concern that is felt. The Lebanon Catholic supporters have alleviated those feeling for her father and I while she is nestled in the bleachers, cheering on the players and always anticipating a win. We are so very thankful to all who have helped complete a significant part of Adrienne’s interest and life.
Again, Thank You!
Adrienne is more than just the all-time fan. What people don’t realize is her incredible ability to be the team historian. She can recall unordinary things like who number 10 was on Clarion High School, the 1992 team that Lebanon Catholic beat for the state championship. She is actually pretty incredible in that sense. As well as in a billion other ways.
If only we all could be so gifted…
Jeff, Thank you for these great reports and your article on Adrienne Heilman was fantastic! I being a retired School Psychologist and having a niece with Down’s (47% end up with limited intellectual functioning but the 43% usually have some type of learning disability but not MR) can not thank you enough for this great article you wrote. Adrienne and my niece have better social skills than many of the ‘normal’ students I worked with over the years! Way to go Jeff and thank you from all of we professionals that work with this population of extremely interesting individuals. The happy demure of these people always give me pause about life in general and how their great personalities (which has a lot to do with the parenting they received from birth!) make one realize what a great world we live in. Sincerely, Dr. Bill Rakow,Jr.