Changing lives through friendship

Friendship can change lives.  For Goodwill AbilityOne employee Steve Hennessey, a friendship that started over forty years ago has greatly improved the life of both friends.  Read more about how life with a disability hasn’t stopped Steve from being a great friend to Jim Germer.


Grace: For janitor and lawyer-turned-pastor, friendship is a constant

“LINCOLN — Steve is bald now. Jim’s hair has turned completely white.

It is one measure of their long and somewhat improbable friendship, a subject this pair of middle-age men is considering on a recent November day over Steve’s lunch break.

A 54-year-old janitor in jeans and a red vest that says Goodwill, Steve has settled into one of the hard plastic chairs of the beige basement break room of the Robert V. Denney Federal Building. Across the table from him is his best friend Jim, a lawyer-turned-lay-pastor who has driven up from Kansas.

“How many years has it been? Forty?” Steve Hennessey asks over a dish of warmed-up spaghetti and meatballs.

Jim Germer slowly swirls a bottle of Mountain Dew and considers Steve’s question.

A lot of time has passed since the two were matched in a program that paired people whose brains worked differently.

How long have they known each other?

Since college. Through the milestones after that. Law school for Jim. Special Olympics for Steve. Marriage for Jim. Bachelorhood for Steve. Law and advocacy work in Kansas for Jim. Cleaning holding cells, the soil lab and break room for Steve. A house in Crete for Jim and wife Jayne. A basement apartment with at least three TV sets and piles of movies for Steve.

Through the years, Jim and Steve have been each other’s constant. They talk by phone every Tuesday. They see each other at least once a month. Steve comes to Jim’s family reunions. Jim drives Steve to see his brother in McCook and his sister in Hebron.

When Steve had hernia surgery in June, he recovered at Jim and Jayne’s in Crete. When Jim forgot to send a birthday card to Jayne’s mother, Steve had his back — sending one for him and signing Jim’s name.

“We met,” Jim finally answers Steve, “in … 19…”

Maybe it was 1978. Maybe it was 1979. The when doesn’t matter as much as the how, the why and the who.

Jim Germer was a psychology major from Hebron who ran track at Nebraska Wesleyan University. The son of a lawyer, Jim was trying to decide whether to follow his brain — and his dad — and become a lawyer, too, or follow his heart and be a minister. He was laid-back and a little shy and really admired his roommate, a fellow psychology major working a part-time job at a place called The ARC of Lincoln.

The ARC is an organization started in the 1950s by parents of children with intellectual disabilities. Back then, the term for that was mental retardation. Back then, children with such disabilities were more separate, more cloistered in institutions, hospitals and their homes. Back then, they were not as integrated into society as they are today.

Children were sent away to schools or lived at home. Their circles were small and limited to family or medical experts. They could not be served in public schools, and society was hardly set up to welcome them in jobs or housing.

That was beginning to change in the 1970s, and a national expert based in Omaha realized that people with disabilities would need help from peers on the “outside.” He proposed a citizen advocate program in which the Steves of the world would be matched with Jims for guidance, advocacy and friendship.

The purpose, explained Bonnie Ackerman, who ran the citizen advocate program in Lincoln, was to carefully select and recruit “advocates” who would be willing to make a long-term commitment to their “protégés.” They would not be paid. But they were not quite volunteers, either. This was not some gig you could try and then slough off.

Given all the unsettling changes that people with intellectual disabilities faced — especially those without family — it was important to set up something lasting.

Orphaned since he was a toddler, Steve Hennessey had grown up in a Beatrice residential center called the Martin Luther Homes that provided education and job training to children with intellectual disabilities. Steve had a mild disability that made reading and understanding things in depth somewhat difficult. It made him anxious. He never learned, for instance, how to drive. But he could follow instructions, stick to a routine and be counted on to complete a task. He had incredible common sense.

At 18, Steve moved to Lincoln and settled into a group home. He became active in the Special Olympics and plugged into support agencies like The ARC. He was eager to become independent.

One day, Jim’s roommate who worked at The ARC, a guy named Steve Bond, said Jim just had to meet someone and possibly become his advocate. Someone who was athletic like he was, shy like he was, friendly and warm like he was.

You guys, said the roommate, are so much alike.

Jim, meet Steve Hennessey. Steve, meet Jim.

The two became friends. They bowled together. They went out to restaurants. Jim introduced Steve around. When Jim started dating a woman named Jayne, she liked Jim even more after she met Steve. She liked what she saw of Jim’s compassion and gentleness.

Once Steve and Jim had a running race. Steve beat the Wesleyan hurdler.

Jim and Jayne got married. Jim went to law school. Jayne became a college librarian. Steve moved into his own place. He got a job with Goodwill, sorting donations.

The couple went to Steve’s Special Olympics events. They took him to their family parties. Steve still grouses about the time Jim’s uncle poured him a tiny glass of wine. He does not drink!

Jim said his relationship with Steve caused him to narrow his legal focus to the rights of people with disabilities. He pursued advocacy work and for a while headed a Manhattan, Kansas-based organization called Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services.

Jim felt almost negligent when he moved away from Lincoln, but a mutual friend who worked with disabled adults assured him that Steve was fine. Steve had a job, an apartment and a regimented routine. He walked everywhere and cooked little, eating what he could buy in a restaurant or nuke in a microwave. His main entertainment was movies. Steve got several TV sets — one for regular watching, one with a VCR, one with a DVD player.

Ackerman, who now works for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said it’s important not to “overprotect” people with disabilities. She said that they should be able to live the “least restrictive” kinds of lives and that Steve had proved himself to be independent enough. He didn’t need a babysitter.

Jim has stepped in over the years to iron out little wrinkles, like setting up appointments. Despite the geographic distance as the Germers moved first to Kansas and then to Crete, they remained close to Steve. They were each other’s family.

Steve’s own family had splintered in 1961, after the children’s father was killed in a garbage truck accident. Their mother, Lillian Hennessey, had a breakdown following that. She could not care for the children. A family adopted the older two siblings, but Steve was placed at the Martin Luther Homes in Beatrice. Today the place is called Mosaic.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Jim helped Steve reconnect with his mother and siblings. Jim would take Steve to see his mother in a nursing home in Milford. His sister Lorene, who has intellectual disabilities too, lives in a care center in Hebron. And Steve’s brother, Mike, lives in McCook.

Jim drove his friend all over the state to visit.

But Steve’s world has been in Lincoln. He has worked for Goodwill Industries for 37 years — longer than all but one of the nonprofit’s 638 employees. He has been stationed at the federal building for 24 years. He lives less than a mile away and walks to and from work. He always stops at the same Kwik Shop for coffee before his 6 a.m. shift. He always gets to work early. He rarely takes a day off.

Steve is surrounded by guardian angels, including his boss, Cyndi Hartman-Splear, who mother-hens Steve about not eating so many bologna sandwiches. There are plenty of others along his path and at the federal building. Steve makes the U.S. marshals laugh. He has so endeared himself to U.S. District Judge C. Arlen Beam that the federal judge requests that Steve be assigned to clean his fourth-floor chambers.

Steve is so focused on routine that he will not waver. That means no to rides, even from friends. He doesn’t carry much money. He doesn’t answer the door. And Jim knows that if he doesn’t call Steve between 6:04 p.m. and 6:14 p.m. on Tuesday nights, Steve won’t pick up the phone.

Jim was worried during the partial federal government shutdown in 2013 that almost put Steve out of work. Steve needs his routine.

Where Steve’s life has been routine, Jim’s days — especially now, in his ministerial role — are unpredictable.

He left the Kansas disability organization about a decade ago following a shakeup in leadership. In recent years, he has served the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America as a lay pastor. He pinch hits for rural pastors south of the Nebraska-
Kansas border. Sometimes he’s at the hospital visiting a dying parishioner. Sometimes he’s giving the Sunday sermon.

But on a recent weekday he has driven to Lincoln to visit Steve.

“How old are we now?” Jim asks Steve.

“Old,” Steve laughs.

Steve will turn 55 next month. Jim is 56.

The two enjoy a wide-ranging conversation that includes a local scandal, favorite TV shows — “Batman” in particular — and Mountain Dew versus the healthy juice Steve dubiously sips before declaring: “That’s not bad stuff!”

Asked what he likes about his friend, Steve says: “I don’t want to get my goose cooked!” and “You’re going to get me in the doghouse!”

Interwoven in the banter are reflections on the past. About how when Jim met Steve, Steve’s job was sorting donated shoes. About how Jim used to drive a car that was really like “a big boat,” a term that still cracks Steve up. About how Jim breaks things, like the butterfly gift Steve gave him one year. About how Steve remembers everybody’s birthday.

“He forgets,” Steve pokes fun at Jim. “I call him ‘space cadet.’ ”

Steve also calls Jim his friend, his partner.

“Like Pancho and Cisco,” he says. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto.”

Jim explains that their friendship is mutual. Reciprocal.

“Steve’s one of the most considerate, compassionate people I know,” Jim says.

Their friendship nourishes them both and, in that regard, it’s no different than other relationships that sustain us, said Linda Timmons, CEO of Mosaic.

“The networks we build in our lives help us get through. I always use the Beatles’ line, ‘We get by with a little help from our friends,’ ” Timmons said.

At their recent meeting, even though his friend Jim had driven for over two hours to see him, Steve remains bound to duty and routine.

After his usual 30-minute lunch, which Steve dutifully clocked out for, it is time to push his cart to clean the daycare. He is not deterred.

He keeps saying pleasantly, but firmly:

“I’ve got to get going.”

“Are we done? Thank you.”

“I’m going to get back to what I’m doing.”

Jim bids his friend farewell.

“Bye, Steve,” he says cheerfully. “Call you Tuesday.”  ”


From the Omaha World Herald, November 30, 2014:

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