Editor’s note: People of Faith is a recurring question-and-answer feature highlighting various leaders in the local faith community.
Helen Heckman never had to suffer through catastrophic classroom experiences as the shrinking substitute targeted by unruly students.
When she stepped into such a backup role after careers in systems analysis, sales and real estate, she often stood authoritatively head and shoulders above others.
“I think it was because I was literally taller (than usual),” she said. “And I made it look like I knew what I was doing. I don’t get intimidated too easily.”
That experience led to a new calling — one that last year landed her in the role of principal at 360-student St. Bartholomew Catholic School in Columbus. This year, she finds herself a key member of a focus group studying the possibility of locating a Catholic high school — or maybe more than one — in one of four areas of south-central Indiana. That includes perhaps the Columbus-Seymour area.
She said she expects Catholic leaders to decide by spring.
Q&A with helen heckman
Family: Husband, Chuck; sons, Patrick, 23, David, 21, and Ryan, 15
Role: Principal since 2013 of St. Bartholomew Catholic School, 1306 27th St., Columbus, where she oversees a student body of 360. She also is a member of a Indianapolis archdiocese’s focus group considering a high school in one of four areas of south-central Indiana
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business and master’s degree in education and business administration from Indiana University
Why is a Catholic education important today?
I’ve always said it’s a matter of faith, family and friends. Everything we do here begins with faith. We start the day with prayer, we pray before lunch, after lunch and then we end our day with prayer (plus daily religion classes and weekly Mass). We never have to think twice about (public) prayer.
And with family, I don’t think you can quite put into words that we all feel like a big family here. And you have to keep in mind that some of the students here, by the time they get to eighth grade, have been together since preschool.
And friends? My best friends today are those I went to elementary school and high school with.
Why do we need a Catholic high school in this area?
I really think a lot of families want that faith-based option. But it’s just too far for most families to drive their children to (Indianapolis’) Roncalli High School or another place such as Madison. I think it gives students another four years of solidly building their faith.
In what ways did your 12 years of Catholic education in Indianapolis influence you?
My close, Catholic friends were part of my entire upbringing. ... I think one of the things involved was the idea that we were directly being given a moral compass — and seeing people trying to teach us the right way and at the same time always bringing elements of compassion and love to the forefront of everything and extended to all people. Today, that affects the way I treat people because I had such good examples.
What kind of community impact can Catholic students, from teens to preteens, make?
I’ve personally heard students at Roncalli High School say they believe they’re called to be role models. (As one example, she talked of high school students speaking to younger students about sexual abstinence as part of a program called Promise to Keep). We have a service component.
At any high school that’s built here or near here, there probably would be a service component as well that would be part of a grade and graduation requirement.
They would maybe working at Love Chapel (food pantry) or working in soup kitchens or something like that.
What perhaps is some people’s public perception of those at a Catholic school?
That we’re all white and all rich. But we’re a lot more diverse at this school than people realize. We have a 20 percent Hispanic makeup — and students who are from China, Russia, Spain and elsewhere. And 25 percent of our students are on vouchers or some sort of scholarship assistance.