Ben's Story: Shining a light of hope

This story was first printed in the Fall 2010 issue of Sunshine Magazine.


Photo of Ben, Methodist Children's HomeAs a social work major at the University of Texas, MCH alumnus Ben Heefner has discovered a passion for offering hope to at-risk children and youth in the Austin area.

Ben Heefner is a confident, approachable and intelligent senior at the University of Texas. But six years ago, Heefner was a scared 15-year-old who arrived at Methodist Children’s Home with little hope for his future.

When Heefner was 13, his father died from lung cancer. Heefner and his mother depended on his father financially and emotionally, and after his death Heefner’s mother wrestled with her grief. In desperation, she turned to drug abuse as a way to cope.

Heefner floundered. He struggled emotionally and started skipping school. He acted out and got into trouble. In his desperate attempts for attention, he stole and vandalized.

Then, only two years after his father’s death, Heefner’s mother died of complications from her drug addiction. Heefner was so emotionally drained he could not even cry.

Heefner’s grandmother, an active member of First United Methodist Church of Richardson, had heard about the Home through her pastor, Dr. Clayton Oliphint. Dr. Oliphint, current Chair of the MCH Board of Directors, had spoken openly and warmly about the Home. Heefner’s family decided to take a leap of faith by contacting the MCH admissions department.

Heefner distinctly remembers his initial intake interview at the Home. He spoke with Clarence DeGrate, who currently serves as the at-risk coordinator at the MCH charter school. DeGrate told Heefner that he had to choose if he wanted to be a leader or a follower. That conversation stuck with Heefner.

“It took me about a year to understand what it meant to be a leader,” Heefner said.

Within two years, Heefner earned the respect of staff and reached the highest level in the Home’s program of care. Felicia Moore, the unit manager in Heefner’s home, also saw that he had something special to offer, and she refused to let him off easily.

“She picked me apart,” Heefner said. “She knew I was smart, so instead of giving me black and white answers, she made me ask the tough questions that I couldn’t answer. She made me confront my past and helped me find peace. She helped me become a leader.”

Heefner’s leadership extended to his work in school. While living with his mother his freshman year of high school, he skipped so much school due to family circumstances that he was a year behind when he arrived at Methodist Children’s Home. With a GPA of less than 1.0 his freshman year, Heefner made a commitment to reclaim his educational future. During his sophomore year, Heefner made up the work he missed and got back on track with his grade level through the MCH charter school.

“School was always easy for me,” Heefner said. “Even though no one in my family had ever gone to college, my mom always told me that I was going to go to college on a scholarship. I made it my goal to earn a scholarship.”

As a junior, Heefner attended A. J. Moore Academy, a Waco public school, so he could take college prep courses. Over the course of his last three years of high school, he raised his GPA to 3.8.

While his GPA was impressive, it was not enough to put him in the top 10 percent of his graduating class, which would have allowed him automatic admission to the University of Texas, his dream school. Heefner knew he had to do something to stand out from the other applicants – he had to tell his story, even if it was difficult.

Heefner drafted a long letter to the UT admissions department. He told them his story, and he asked them to take a chance on him.

Two weeks before he graduated from high school, when he had almost lost hope and after he had already committed to his second-choice school, Heefner received acceptance to the University of Texas. He was overjoyed and quickly completed the necessary paperwork to take his place as a member of the freshman class.

MCH awarded Heefner the Albaugh Scholarship to cover his tuition and fees, which enabled him to attend the University of Texas without having to incur personal debt.

“The financial support from Methodist Children’s Home has helped me tremendously,” Heefner said. “I don’t have to worry about where the tuition money will come from. I can focus on school.”

But even with the support of staff at MCH, there are things that Heefner has had to conquer on his own. From repairing flat tires to finding an apartment and signing up for electricity, Heefner has realized how difficult life can be without parents.

“While my friends were calling their dads to come fix a flat tire, I was calling the tow truck,” Heefner said.

These frustrating life lessons have only strengthened him.

“My friends often come to me for advice when they encounter hard times,” Heefner said. “I think it’s because I’ve had to learn what it means to be an adult earlier than most people my age.”

Helping is part of Heefner’s nature. He has a servant heart and a willing spirit, which led Heefner to his life calling.

“Social work was always in the back of my mind, even though I came to UT majoring in the sciences,” Heefner said. “Since I realized my true passion, I haven’t looked back.”

Heefner is a self-described social work “nerd.” He loves his classes and talks about them with infectious enthusiasm. Heefner has had the opportunity to work with a variety of community organizations in the Austin area. One organization, Communities in Schools, helps young people who are struggling with their education. Heefner immediately saw that he was uniquely equipped to serve youth not so different from himself.

“I meet kids every day who are asking, ‘What can I do with my life?’” Heefner said. “It is my job to challenge them to ask, ‘What can’t I do with my life?’ I don’t want them to be limited by their environment and upbringing.”

Heefner takes on a special glow when he talks about his social work experiences. With a passion for helping children in rough spots, Heefner has been able to be a light of hope to many youth around Austin.

“I have a passion to be a gateway for these youth,” Heefner said. “I want them to know there is hope for their future.”

Heefner plans to continue studying social work in graduate school so he can work with families and children in a community organization. Heefner knows from his own past that altering the negative patterns in communities and individual families requires hard work and a partnership among all parties.

“For a long time, I was arrogant and didn’t give credit for my success to my homeparents and other staff at MCH, my grandmother or even Dr. Oliphint,” Heefner said. “Now I recognize how very blessed I was to be surrounded by people who helped me become who I am today.”

Last year, MCH invited Heefner to share his testimony at a Board of Directors meeting. As Heefner spoke about the impact of the Home, he shared how he struggled and overcame his past through his efforts to be a better person. After the speech, Dr. Oliphint pulled Heefner aside and gently reminded him, “And God, Ben. And God.”

“He didn’t want me to forget who really got me to where I am today,” Heefner said. “And he is right. I lost track of my relationship with God and started thinking again about my accomplishments.”

Heefner’s conversation with Dr. Oliphint helped shape his perspective on his life and calling.

“I still struggle sometimes to feel a close connection to God, just like anyone else out there,” Heefner said. “But I can honestly say that I am here for a reason. I am doing all this for Him.”

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