When Seven Oaks Elementary School needed a playground for its special needs students, it brought in the tween idols Jonas Brothers for a benefit concert. They raised $15,000. A good start, but not enough.
Meanwhile, a single mom worked quietly behind the scenes.
One day, out of the blue, Theresa "Terri" Heaney came to principal B.J. Smith and said she had $9,000.
"She was so incredible at keeping the secret," Smith recalled.
Heaney, personnel manager at the New Tampa Wal-Mart and the mother of an autistic 7-year-old first-grader at the school, had persuaded the Wal-Mart stores to adopt the playground as a service project.
The school now is home to the fenced playground, which sits lower to the ground than a standard one and includes drums and other equipment to provide sensory stimulation.
Her effort impressed more than her son's principal. It was one of the reasons Working Mother magazine named her to its list of top 30 mothers of the year. The list, which includes CEOs and first lady Michelle Obama, appears in this month's issue.
The magazine usually picks one winner but named 30 this year in honor of its 30th anniversary. The winners got invited to a luncheon at the company's New York headquarters. Heaney and co-worker Cindy Russell flew up Thursday morning and had lunch Friday. Wal-Mart then flew Heaney to its corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to give top executives there a full report.
"I've never been there," she said last week before her trip to the Big Apple. "I hear the lights in Times Square are really exciting. I can't wait to see all the lights and see all the people."
She said she hoped to meet Obama at a round table discussion before lunch.
"I hope to get some good ideas," she said.
Heaney, 40, was nominated by her mother, Joyce Vanermine.
Vanermine saw the solicitation in the magazine, which Heaney subscribes to, and wrote a letter.
She wrote about how Heaney pushed to get her son, Matthew, tested for autism despite doctors' reluctance to do so because he was "too vocal." She wrote about her daughter's desire to make her son her top priority.
"She told (her bosses) her son came first and if they didn't like it they could fire her. She'd find another job."
Fortunately, Heaney, who started at Wal-Mart 20 years ago behind a cash register, says the company has been accommodating, offering ample flexibility and good benefits. When she won the magazine honor, the retail giant bought a congratulatory ad "from your Wal-Mart family."
Her employer and her mother, with whom she lives in Dade City, have provided the support system she needs to make things work as a single parent.
Still, the challenges of having an autistic child make life tough.
Because autism can make Matthew a danger to himself, Heaney must wake up whenever he does.
Usually that's 4:30 a.m.
If he gets caught up in a video game, that gives Heaney time to get clothes laid out and get herself ready for work. She leaves before he goes to school. Her mother takes him to meet the school bus and picks him up in the afternoon. Matthew's father has never been in the picture.
Schedules are very important to kids with autism. Dinner is at 6 p.m. sharp or "he gets upset," Heaney said.
While many parents are careful what their children see on television, the consequences could be far worse for Heaney. Matthew imitates nearly everything he sees.
"If CSI is on," she joked, "I might wake up to my own autopsy."
The part that can be overwhelming is never being able to escape a 24-hour feeling of responsibility.
"Mom's a great help, but you feel totally responsible for a child with different needs," she said.
Heaney said she gets a break by working or volunteering. She serves on the local board of the Children's Miracle Network, a nonprofit organization that raises money for children's hospitals.
Her own mother, who raised four kids alone, said she's never seen a parent as devoted as Heaney.
"She goes to work. She comes home. Most young people want to go out and have fun."
Autism is a complicated condition, she said. Kids who have it don't communicate well or at all, depending on the severity of the case. But Matthew reads above his grade level.
Vanermine credits her daughter, who talks and reads to her son despite the lack of a normal response.
"She never gives up," she said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.