(Crystal A. Proxmire 1/4/2011)
Ann Heler is not Fern Care. It’s easy to think so, since every time you see her out at community events it’s always “the clinic this,” or “the clinic that.” And of course it’s evident she gives up most of her free time for meetings organizing volunteers, planning for events, lobbying and raising money for her pet project The Fern Care Free Health Clinic.
The clinic, which has been open since Aug 7, 2010 (http://www.ferndale115.com/20100807ferncare.html), will soon be in its permanent home at 459 E. 9 Mile. Funded by government grants and donations, the clinic offers free healthcare to those without insurance. (http://www.ferndale115.com/20100101ferncarefeat.html).
For over two years Heler has led the project as the Board President and also it’s most vocal advocate, but is adamant that she can’t take all the credit. “There is a board with 11 people on it, six who have been on the board from the beginning. The clinic team no has over 50 active volunteer s and a large list of potential volunteers. And dozens of people have given their time and generosity to make this project happen.”
Despite her humble attitude and sincere appreciation of the others involved, Heler was overwhelmingly nominated by Ferndale 115 News readers for “Ferndalian of the Year,” for 2010 because her hard work. But the energetic 68-year-old Ferndale resident has a lot more to be recognized for in her lifetime of community service, including her role in growing the area’s LGBT community, helping to create fairness and fun in Ferndale, and working hard to raise two children as a single mother in a time when society was not kind to struggling women.
Heler grew up in Detroit near 7 Mile and Gratiot, with parents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. She remembers her mother being involved in Mother’s Clubs, the precursors to PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations), and working the polls at election time. Her father, and engineer, caused a stir in the 1940s when he hired a Jewish engineer to work with him.
Education was also an important value instilled by her upbringing. She completed her degree in Special Education from Wayne State University, a degree that proved to be invaluable when she fell on hard times later in life.
She fell in love with a journalist who gave her two beautiful children, Andrea and Michael. The reporter’s work with the Associated Press carried the family on adventures overseas. They spent the mid-to-late 60s living in London, Frankfort and Munich. But unfortunately family life was a strain and the husband abandoned Heler and the children, leaving her in the position of being a struggling single mother through the 70s.
“Going to court and asking them to grant me a divorce was a real eye-opening experience for me,” Heler said. “The ground for the divorce was abandonment, and I had to bring a character witness in with me to speak on my behalf. Even getting the day off work to go to court was an experience. You couldn’t just say you needed a personal day. I had to go before my bosses and explain the situation and hope they would allow me to miss work
‘I couldn’t change my name back because in those days you couldn’t have a different name than your children because of the schools. It was just a different time.
‘There was a whole period of life when all I did was be a working mom. A lot of it isn’t glamorous.”
Heler found renewed strength and faith in community in the 70s and 80s when she began going to the Women’s Coffee House at the Universal Unitarian Church in Detroit. The group was a social club for women to support each other and share in good music. Many of the women were lesbians who kept their love hidden from the unaccepting public. “In the 70s and 80s it was hard,” Heler said. “People were not out and to come somewhere they could hold hands and listen to music, it was a big deal. It was a good introduction to the issues that gay people faced, to see how they could be harmed by fear.”
She came out when she was 40. “I was really lucky,” she said. “I didn’t have the rejection problems that so many people face when they come out. No, no, no. Nobody cared. My mother just said ‘oh, it’s about time,’ and my kids were teenagers then, so it was just like ‘ok mom, whatever.”
It was 1981 when Heler moved her family out of Hamtramck and bought a cute little bungalow on Leroy Street in Ferndale. She worked as a special needs teacher and an acting assistant principal at a public school in Detroit, and as a consultant for people with special needs who exhibit inappropriate social sexual behaviors. She worked with the families, schools, group homes and disability organizations to give her clients the most secure network of support available to them.
Through the school system she became a voice for those with developmental dysfunctions and for gay and lesbian teachers in the district. She was part of a group formerly known as The Association for the Severely Handicapped, “handicapped” being a term no longer used. She worked with the Michigan Federation of Teachers Detroit on LGBT issues to encourage protection for sexual orientation in teachers’ contracts, and created a pamphlet called Gay and Lesbians Guide for Schools in Wayne County. “All this just happened,” Heler said. “But I probably would not have done that had I not seen the women at the coffee house and all they went through.”
In the early 80s she volunteered for Rudy Serra as he led a campaign to get equal protection for gays into the City Ordinances. It did not pass at that time, but it led to more community organizing and more influx of the gay community into Ferndale. In 1994, Heler was part of a social organization called FANS, meaning Friends and Neighbors. They met with the blessing of Father Wurm at St. James Church. “This is what I love about Ferndale,” Heler said. “Here we went as a gay organization to the Catholic Church and they welcomed us with open arms.”
She explained what happened the day FANs went from a social club to an activist group. “One day a person came in, who had ridden his bike to the meeting and someone had called him names on the way,” Heler said. “It made us really think about the idea that being called names was acceptable. It wasn’t. We all live here. We all pay taxes. We have a right to go places without being afraid or harassed.
‘We called Chief Joe Sullivan, who was the Police Chief at the time, introduced ourselves, and said we’d like to talk to him about gay rights. We expected to get the runaround, and were surprised at his response. He asked us what time we would like to meet. We had the best meeting and from that phone call the Ferndale Police have been absolutely supportive of us.” Out of FANs grew Police Positive, a group that monitored and recorded hate crimes in Ferndale. Ferndale Police sent representatives to meetings and gave talks about how individuals can protect themselves. Heler looked on as Mayor Bob Porter passed a proclamation in the early 90s that hate crimes were not acceptable in the city. In 2004 Heler served as the last President of FANs. The group disbanded because there simply wasn’t a hate crime problem in the community any more. In 2006 the Human Rights Ordinance passed.
Citizens for Fair Ferndale, CFF, started in 2006 so that a group of residents who care about the community could be on hand should any more divisive issues come up. Heler was part of this group, which gives the Community the Annual Good Neighbor Awards, and hosts forums for elections and ballot issues. Heler and others in this group decided to tackle the issue of accessible healthcare by starting a free health clinic in Ferndale. They formed a separate board, and two years and four months later, Fern Care is now a reality.
“Ferndale is a special place,” Heler said. “This is a city of people with projects. I like to have projects, and because of having a project I get to meet other people who are doing projects. It’s this energy here that I feed off of. This place allows you to spread your wings. No matter what your project is, there are always people around to tell you ‘go for it.’ And lots of people to pitch in and help, so we all succeed. Look at Kevin Deegan-Krause and the people he brought together to make the new library happen. That was his project. And Larry Seville with his project – America’s Fallen, where he honors those who have died in the armed services. All of the parents who come together to keep the Marching Band Going. And a lot of these small businesses that you see are really just people doing their own project, like the lady who runs The Candle Wick Shop [Jacki Smith], what a great Ferndale thing that store is, and many of the stores along here. Or those ladies who are doing the Waggs and Wishes Animal Rescue. They’re taking care of the animals instead of people, but it’s basically the same thing – a project that helps make the community better. The people here rub off on each other. And these aren’t little projects either. These are people following their dreams, and building things that take months or even years. Being surrounded by that is what really keeps me going, and excited.”
There is still a lot more to be done with Fern Care. Providing free healthcare requires continuous fundraising and organizing. But once Heler has that down, she’s got another project in her sights. “I don’t mind giving away my next idea. In fact, I want someone to steal it – I’ll just think of another. But wouldn’t it be fun to plant 2,000 trees around Ferndale to replace the Oaks and the Elms that we’ve lost to disease. It would fit in with the City Master Plan, Main Street USA and all that. How much fun would that be?”
Whatever her next project, Heler is sure to keep busy doing her work and supporting others. To find out more about the Fern Care Free Clinic, go to their website – www.ferncare.org. For information on the other Ferndalian of the Year nominees, continue to check www.ferndale115.com for our upcoming story.