DADE CITY — When we last talked with Theresa "Terri" Heaney in May, the 40-year-old single mom was shopping for a new outfit. The occasion? A trip to New York City — her first — to be honored by Working Mother magazine as one of its Mothers of the Year. To celebrate its 30th birthday, the publication dedicated to work/life balance chose 30 women instead of the usual single winner.
Heaney, a personnel manager for the New Tampa Walmart Supercenter, was among those picked because of her volunteer efforts, including her role in helping raise $9,000 for a special needs playground at Seven Oaks Elementary. Her son, Matthew, who is autistic, was a second-grader there.
The Dade City resident who started at Walmart 20 years ago behind a cash register got to dine with executive moms such as Susan Sobbott, president of American Express Open. The most famous name on the list was first lady Michelle Obama, but the mom-in-chief was a no-show to the awards luncheon.
"Michelle Obama stood me up two times," joked Heaney, who recalled how the first lady wasn't able to attend the dedication of the new All Children's Hospital, which Heaney helped raise money for as a board member of the Children's Miracle Network.
The award-winning mom filled two photo albums with memories. She and two friends who went with her toured Times Square, St. Patrick's Cathedral and saw a host of other sights.
Heaney and the other winners got the celebrity treatment at a luncheon held at Cipriani 42nd Street, with marble columns, soaring ceilings, inlaid floors and elaborate chandeliers.
"We got to walk on the red carpet," she said. "I kept taking pictures of the room because I'd never been in a room this nice, and I have a bad memory and I wanted to make sure I remembered it."
The day began with round table discussions about economics, health and technology. Heaney said she had more in common with the other women than she thought.
"They were all down to earth," she said. "I realized that I wasn't alone. I was facing the same issues everyone else is facing."
Each winner received a glass star as a memento. Heaney keeps hers at her desk at Walmart so her son won't use it to hurt himself.
"He likes glass," she said.
After the New York trip, Heaney went to Bentonville, Ark., headquarters of Walmart. There she got to see a video tribute made for her and share her experience with corporate big shots.
Heaney, a single mom who lives with her mother, Joyce Vanermine, had left her son overnight only once before, to attend a shareholders' meeting. She said the separation was just as difficult for her as for him.
"Autistic children have to stay in a routine," Heaney said. She talked to Matthew on the phone during her trip.
"He met me at the airport. I'm not sure who cried more, me or him."
Matthew, she said, is doing well. He is now going to a new school, Watergrass Elementary, which is closer to home and now houses the program for autistic kids.
The only drawback: The school has no playground.
"We're working on that," Heaney said with a smile.
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.