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Balancing service

Big 12 Female Sportsperson of the Year and former MU gymnast dedicates almost all her free time to serving her community
Sunday, December 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:03 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kim and Julie Heinicka sat at a quilt shop outside Kansas City on Friday afternoon, waiting for their daughter. Jodie Heinicka was supposed to leave Columbia in the morning, but the snow slowed her down.

First it was her car, which was stuck in her driveway. Around 3:30 p.m., she finally got out, but then there was another problem: three fourths of Interstate 70 to Kansas City was listed as “covered” by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and another part of it, by Boonville, was listed as closed.

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Jodie Heinicka has volunteered to wake at 6 a.m. each weekday for the past two and a half years to help a quadriplegic man get out of bed, dressed and shaved. (Missourian file photo)

In the quilt shop, people began to hear what was going on. Some of them began to call relatives in Columbia, one called the highway patrol, and another even called a UPS man. The strangers were all trying to help Jodie Heinicka get to Kansas City.

The Heinicka parents had come to Kansas City from their home in Seminole, Fla., to be with their daughter Friday at the Big 12 Commissioners Banquet and Dr. Pepper Big 12 Conference Football Championship Saturday, but now that wasn’t looking so good.

The former Missouri gymnast was supposed to be honored as the Big 12 Female Sportsperson of the Year, but now, in a faraway state with a substance they aren’t used to covering the ground, nothing seemed to be going right.

The Heinicka parents were concerned, but when dealing with Jodie, they really didn’t have to be. Earlier that day, Julie Heinicka had been talking about Jodie Heinicka’s ability to make a bad situation better.

“She’s always had a really positive attitude,” her mother said. “Jodie could always find the bright side in everything.”

So even though it took Jodie and her boyfriend three hours to shovel her driveway, five hours to drive down Highway 50, and they ended up missing the banquet by a half hour, there was still a bright side. Jodie Heinicka was safe, she got to see her parents, and she did not miss the important event, when she is honored during the first TV timeout of the football game.

Jodie Heinicka wasn’t named Big 12 Female Sportsperson for her ability to find detours in bad weather conditions, but skills like that don’t hurt. The Sportspersons of the Year are student-athletes who displayed an extraordinary degree of sportsmanship and/or community service during the academic year, as chosen by a media panel. She is the first athlete from Missouri to win the award since it was created in 2000-01.

As a senior in 2006, Jodie Heinicka was ranked No. 4 in the nation on the uneven bars and competed in three events for the Tigers. More importantly, for the award, she had a laundry list of community service under her belt, highlighted by her voluntary work with a local quadriplegic man.

“In all honesty, I was rather surprised,” she said, “Because the Big 12 is a big conference, there is a lot of big people in the conference. I understand that I do a lot and I’ve been active and all that, but I was like, ‘How am I the best choice? There has got to be someone that is better than me.’”

As it turns out, there probably wasn’t another Big 12 athlete who woke up at 6 a.m. each weekday for the past two and a half years to help get a quadriplegic man dressed, shaved and out of bed and into his wheelchair for work. If there is, there may not have been another Big 12 athlete who also visited child cancer patients at University Hospital, organized a Habitat for Humanity project, worked with the Can Food Drive for Central Missouri Food Bank, and much more. She also won a handful of MU honors for teamwork and commitment to the community and was Academic All-Big 12 three times.

“The award for me is all the experiences that I’ve had,” Jodie Heinicka said. “Its great to be recognized and get this award, but I already felt like I had awards. I am truly grateful for it.”

Some of her community service was done through the gymnastics team or through the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, of which she was the vice president. Some of her service, though, including the work with the quadriplegic man, was done independently.

“She is really just a fantastic person,” MU gymnastics coach Rob Drass said. “If you’ve read some of the accomplishments she has had as an athlete, as a student, or in community service, she is what I would hope all of my gymnasts become.”

Jodie Heinicka doesn’t know when she got hooked on community service, but her mother might have an idea.

“Probably what she doesn’t really think of, or remember, when she was a little girl, around 4 years old, I used to take my dogs to visit at the nursing home,” Julie Heinicka said. “We would put on a little skit, entertain people in the nursing home. In the summertime, Jodie would go with me, and of course the elderly people loved the dogs and the kids, so she would go with me to that. That was probably her first exposure to community service, although she probably never thought of it as that.”

Growing up in the Tampa Bay area, Heinicka often saw her parents volunteering. Kim Heinicka, an engineer at Honeywell, would spend time at a local high school mentoring students and helping them with a robot-building competition. It was work that Julie Heinicka, a fire fighter from Pinellas Park, Fla., did that started Jodie Heinicka’s current streak.

Each year the fire department collects toys and raises money for families around Thanksgiving and Christmas. One year, when Jodie Heinicka was in middle school, Jim and Julie Heinicka were in charge of her youth group at their church. They decided to create a similar program for the youth group.

“We got families and the kids got assigned a certain kid in the family,” Julie Heinicka said. “They went to a store and bought gifts, we came to church, decorated stockings, wrapped gifts, then went to house and delivered them.”

Since then, Jodie Heinicka’s passion for community service has grown.

“It definitely evolved,” Jodie Heinicka said. “After freshman year - halfway through sophomore year - I wanted to do anything I could.”

Jodie Heinicka graduated from Missouri last May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with components of health science and psychology. She took a two-month break from work and school this summer, spending time in Louisiana with her boyfriend. Now, she is back at Missouri, and busy as ever.

On weekday mornings, Jodie is still waking up at 6 a.m. to help the quadriplegic man. She then goes to the Hearnes Center, where she is a graduate assistant in the athletic department and works in the Total Person Program. At night, she has class three nights per week and watches study hall the other two. On average, Jodie Heinicka works from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m, five days per week.

“I am stressed, and it gets hard,” Jodie Heinicka said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Can I really keep doing this, working for the quadriplegic? Can I really keep helping him?’ But I really, really want to, that’s important to me. So I’m going to do everything I can to stick with it because that’s the one community service thing that I can fit into my schedule.”

With the Total Person Program, Heinicka thinks she might have found the kind of work she would like to do after graduate school. The Total Person Program aims to develop the “total” student athlete through tutoring, mentoring, career planning and other areas. She works with the men and women’s basketball teams, soccer team and enhanced learning students this year, but throughout her two years she will work with all the different parts of the program. The area she is most interested in is life skills.

“That is position that works with SAAC, that’s the position that does community service,” Jodie Heinicka said. “You try to help student athletes prepare for after college, getting jobs and stuff like that, and that is my biggest interest.”

One thing is certain, as long as Jodie Heinicka keeps doing good deeds, her parents will gladly make the trip north.

“Oh my gosh, how proud can two parents be?” Julie Heinicka said. “Jodie has always been outstanding at everything she has done and she has made us so proud its just incredible. I don’t want to burst out crying.”


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