Andreas Jeninga/The Hoya Rev. Dennis Heaphy, S.J. heads Jesuit Volunteers International and has been an inspiration to many, overcoming an accident that rendered him quadriplegic.
Walk in his McCarthy Hall apartment and Dennis Heaphy’s eyes immediately light up. The energetic Georgetown chaplain-in-residence and executive director of Jesuit Volunteers International is always eager to talk to students.
But a quick glance at the man and it becomes clear that he is not the typical high-powered director of a major organization.
Heaphy has a specially designed wheelchair to help him move around. All four of his limbs are compromised and he’s paralyzed below his shoulders – he’s quadriplegic.
“I don’t do handshakes,” he says, smiling. “But I like a pat on the back.”
His paralysis forces him to find unique ways to perform everyday tasks. He has a cadre of student assistants and friends who help him to exercise, shower, dress, use the toilet and eat. To use his computer, he types with a special metal stick in his mouth and also has special voice recognition software.
In a few minutes of talking, it quickly becomes clear that Heaphy is on a mission to make an impact on the world. He’s efficient, articulate and knows exactly what he wants to accomplish.
The headquarters of JVI are on the top floor of a small Alumni Square apartment. The average passerby might assume typical college students live there, but inside this unassuming structure, lives are being changed.
Open the door, walk inside and it’s a hub of activity. Jesuit Volunteers International may currently boast only four employees at their international headquarters on the Georgetown campus, but they’re a very busy staff.
Commonly known as a “faith-based Peace Corps,” the organization was founded in 1984 as an offshoot of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the largest Catholic lay volunteer program in the United States.
Since that time it has grown to 10 international locations in countries including Tanzania, Nepal and Belize.
A Jesuit volunteer, or JV, might find him or herself working in the Ignatian tradition on an AIDS prevention project or teaching in a secondary school.
That’s what Christy King, a JVI associate director, did for two years in Peru.
“I was a full-time teacher and advisor for students from first grade through high school,” she says. “It changed my life because it definitely was not a trip. It was a two-year life-changing experience.”
King and the other JVI staff first met Heaphy when he became the organization’s executive director a year ago. His previous experience as a JV helped him gain the respect of staff and volunteers alike.
In fact, it was during Heaphy’s time as a JV in Belize that he became quadriplegic.
“I was giving swimming lessons to some kids,” he says. “I just dove off the dock into the ocean. I hit bottom, or did something like that, but the end result was quadriplegia.”
A recent college graduate and former president of his fraternity, the young man was devastated by his condition.
“At the time I thought I’d never have the opportunity to do mission work again,” he says. “I think in my heart, I still wanted the opportunity to be involved in international ministry.”
Fighting off depression, Heaphy began a journey that would take him from Boston University, to Harvard, Nicaragua and eventually to Georgetown.
He received master’s degrees from Boston University and Harvard and has worked extensively with at-risk youth and in the public health sector. But it was in Nicaragua doing grass roots development work a few years ago, where Heaphy discovered that he really could succeed.
“One day in Nicaragua I was being pushed in a wheelchair. Coming down the street on the other side was another person with the same level of disability being pushed down the street. If he could survive what was holding me back?” he asked.
According to Scott Sherwood, who met Heaphy through Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Heaphy’s success can be attributed to the simple fact that he knows what he’s doing.
“When I first met him I thought that he was getting things done and he was really an inspiration and more people should know about him,” Sherwood said. “He’s truly an example of someone who has obtained leadership on his merits.”
Sherwood is not the only person with respect for Heaphy. Many of those who know him say he is a very special person.
Kyle Dandelet (COL ’04) helps Heaphy with important activities, such as helping him get into his bed or change his clothes.
“He’s a great guy and working with him just makes my life better,” he said. “He’s so optimistic and has accepted his condition and his lot in life.”
And while Heaphy has accepted his disability, he keeps his good humor intact. He makes self-deprecating cracks about his Irish roots in the middle of intense conversation without missing a beat.
“My disability is intimidating at the start, but maybe my Irishness should be the thing that’s more intimidating,” he says, laughing.
Despite initial fears that Georgetown was not adequately equipped for someone with such a unique disability, the community has adapted well to Heaphy’s condition.
He has special words of thanks for Georgetown administrators who, as he puts it, “have been generous to me as a person and to JVI as well as being open minded and welcoming.”
According to Heaphy, Georgetown administrators, faculty and students have made every effort to make him feel welcome and at home.
JVI is also making efforts to accommodate its new executive director. It will soon be moving its office from Alumni Square to wheelchair-accessible Village A. This will allow Heaphy to go to the office to work every day, instead of having to work from his apartment.
“It has been a challenging transition for the staff who have met the challenge in amazing ways,” he says. “I’m so grateful for the people working in the organization.”
Heaphy also explained that through his injury he has become closer to God and has discovered new opportunities to serve others.
“I’ve discovered that I’ve had to engage with God more fully. I’m no high-roller but I don’t have as many opportunities to tune God out as I did when I was independent,” he says.
Ultimately, Heaphy says that it is important to focus not only on his story of triumph but also on the work JVI does around the world.
“The volunteers are what this organization is all about,” he says. “JVI is not about me. It’s about the staff and it’s about the great service the volunteers provide in communities around the world.”
And while the organization continues to grow and make an even greater impact in the world, others cannot help but notice the singular man Heaphy truly has become.
Jiuhui Huang, his friend and roommate, is just one of the many who has recognized Heaphy’s uniqueness.
“He’s so easy to talk to because he’s just special and so amazing.”