deby hergenrader-breaking barriers

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In 2005, Break the Barriers came to perform at Joni and Friends Family Retreat at Mission Springs, CA.  Deby Hergenrader had previously served at camp for many years as the Short Term Missionary Coordinator, bringing groups of young people from her gym in Fresno, CA volunteering to serve as Short Term Missionaries (STMs), working one on one with a family touched by disability in order to give the parents a much needed rest and time of refreshment.  It was the first night that the families had arrived and Deby’s team, “Barrier Breakers” were the opening performance, welcoming our families.  The team was made up of gymnasts with and without disabilities, children to adults.  But as we watched people flying through the air, leaping off of wheelchairs, being lifted high, one on top of the other, tumbling, and flipping, our attention was focused on the abilities of all the performers, not their disabilities.  Everyone was in awe.

When Deby’s sister, Kathy was born in 1960, Deby was just 5 years old.  It was during an age in time when the great majority of doctors encouraged families to institutionalize their babies simply due to the diagnosis of Down Syndrome.  But Deby’s parents didn’t realize immediately that Kathy had Down Syndrome.  She was slow at hitting her milestones.  As she grew, people would stop her mom, Carmie in the store and comment on her beautiful baby, asking how old she was.  After a while, Carmie became uncomfortable because of the comments that people made about Kathy’s age, looking at her in shock, thinking her little girl was months younger because her muscle tone was weak and her size was small.  Carmie would question her family doctor about Kathy’s slow development and he would always reassure her that everything was fine, she was just a little small for her age.

Finally, when Kathy was close to two years old, Carmie pushed her doctor to do further testing.  After looking closely at facial features and measuring joints, Kathy received the diagnosis, the Mullins were told that Kathy was a “mogoloid,” a term that is no longer used.  Then the doctor recommended that the Mullens institutionalize Kathy, but her parents had already grown to deeply love their precious daughter.

They sat down with Deby and her brother and explained to them that they had a sister who was a mongoloid.  Not understanding the term, Deby said, “But I thought we were Americans!”  Her parents explained that Kathy was just going to develop slowly and would need their help.

Refusing to institutionalize their child, they chose instead to meet the challenge of raising a daughter with special needs as a family.  Deby never felt as though her sister was a burden.  Her mother never put the responsibility of being a “caretaker” on Deby.  Instead, in the morning rush of doing things like getting ready for school, mom would say, “Come on Deby, if you get one shoe, I’ll get the other and we can all head out the door to school a bit more quickly!” And they would join in to help Kathy together.

As they grew up, Deby had a very sensitive heart towards her sister, she would sometimes observe kids teasing and making fun of her.  Instead of become angry and hostile towards them, she realized that if they really got to know Kathy, they wouldn’t want to tease her.  So, she would often invited those kids over to the house, put on the vinyl records and have a dance party.  Kathy loved to dance and laugh and before long, everyone was having a great time, including Kathy.   Perhaps without even realizing it, inclusion became a very large part of how Deby handles life.   The family enjoyed watching as people’s initial perception of those with disability would change once they got to know Kathy.  Deby found herself becoming known as, “Kathy’s sister.”

Deby began gymnastics at a very young age and excelled.  When her little sister was old enough for lessons, she went down to her gym and signed Kathy up as well.  The day the classes began, they both showed up together.  The instructor took one look at her sister and said, “Oh, I can’t teach people like her!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll teach her,” was Deby’s reply.  Deby went through each class, encouraging, and demonstrating for her little sister all the moves, knowing that Kathy loved to mimic whatever her big sister would do.

Instead of going through life feeling as though she had a sister who was a burden, Deby learned to appreciate the differences that she saw in Kathy.  At one point, she even found herself praying to have Down Syndrome!  She envied her sister’s joy, her appreciation of others, the ease with which she loved.  Kathy didn’t get caught up in the superficial worries and cares that often shaped the lives of everyone else around her.  She could get up on a stage and do whatever she wanted, she could hug whoever she wanted, qualities that Deby so admired in her little sister.

Deby’s gymnastic skills were taking off.  No stranger to athletics, Deby’s parents had been professional skaters in the Ice Capades.  But just as Deby was heading towards the Olympic trials in 1972, she suffered an ankle injury which would change the course of her life.  Deby continued to pursue gymnastics only now, it would be from the coaching side.  Watching her sister perform in the Special Olympics, she saw how a dream which had been focused on her own gifts and abilities would now focus on developing the gifts and abilities of others, all others, including those that the world would term, “disabled.”

Marrying Steve Hergenrader, a former Yankees baseball player who had also sustained a career ending injury, Deby found that his athleticism, his proficiency in gymnastics and his special gift of working with children, fueled her dream. Throwing old mattresses in the backyard of their home, along with gymnastics equipment, a trampoline and a room in their house big enough for a dance studio, the young couple named their new enterprise, “Gymnastics by Debbie.”  Kids would be there all hours of the day, sometimes eating dinner right along with Deby’s family when the parents were running late picking them up.  The inclusion that she had been taught as a child, continued to shape her life’s calling and it began touching many other lives as well.

The first time some of the kids from Deby’s gym performed gymnastics in the Special Olympics, they all won gold medals and people began taking notice.  The other coaches asked what she was doing differently and the answer became obvious, it was the inclusion.  While other coaches would instruct students with special needs one at a time, bending their knees, tucking their heads, teaching them to roll, Deby’s students learned by example, performing right alongside of others, giving them inspiration and a goal to reach for.

Parents and volunteers where jumping on board with Deby’s dream.  In 1985, a board of directors was formed and Break the Barriers was officially incorporated as a nonprofit corporation. By 1987, Deby and Steve began forming teams called, Barrier Breakers, a group of performers ranging in age 6 to adult, each with their own definition of triumph.  Their goal was to show inclusion at its best while celebrating all abilities, giving performances which would soften hearts, open eyes and generate hope and awareness for all people.

Deby and Steve, with their official mission statement, “Break all barriers experienced by people with different Abilities,”  have done an amazing job.  There are now over 3,000 students participating in the programs offered at their expanded 32,000 sq. ft. beautiful, “Break the Barriers Ability Center” located in Fresno, CA.  It includes a swimming pool, indoor basketball court, gymnasium, TaeKwanDo classroom, weight room and a dance studio.

Students of all abilities learn from each other and they all excel.  The naturally competitive atmosphere of a local gym is not present amongst her students. The focus is not on improving only your own abilities. Instead, the environment is more of a support system, more like a family, rooting each other on, encouraging one another to reach higher, go farther and accomplish more… together.  People with disabilities are doing things that doctors had not predicted and are exceeding expectations. Through education of her students, the love and compassion that has developed between them, barriers are being broken down, even the barriers of diagnosis.

The Barrier Breakers now travel throughout the world, giving performances which touch the hearts of audience members, bringing them to tears, as well as to their feet.  Disability is something which affects all cultural backgrounds, all faiths, all socio-economical backgrounds.  If not physically, we all understand limitations which affect us spiritually and emotionally.  Disability crosses all borders, all boundaries.  It is something with which all the world can relate.

The Barrier Breakers, a National Role Model for Inclusion, have made their mark on both a National and International level. Their performances have included:

  • Washington, DC for the U.S. Department of Special Education Leadership Conference
  • The Central Valley Billy Graham Crusade performances and co-chairs for Accessability Committee
  • The National Children’s Pastor’s Conference – Anaheim and Florida
  • The National Down Syndrome Conference
  • Children to Love International in Bucharest, Romania performing for government leaders and Romanian dignitaries in 2005 and 2006
  • Performed for the Department of Disability, Department of Religion, Department of Education and government officials and dignitaries in Xiamen, China, 2007
  • Performed for churches, disability schools and workshops in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2008 and will be returning in 2009
  • and many more throughout the United States and Canada

Besides performing, Barrier Breakers are also keynote speakers at conferences, churches, seminars and educational workshops.

You can view their promotional video under our Featured Videos section and also visit their website at:  www.breakthebarriers.org

God choose one little baby girl, born with Down Syndrome, to inspire the direction of her sister’s life, expanding dreams, breaking down barriers, changing the world.

Kathy and her mother, Carmie at Joni and Friends Family Retreat, Wonder Valley, CA

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  1. I am truly inspired by your life Deby! The passion you have for people, your caring spirit and strength, and love above all, was such an encouragement in the short two years working with you. Your spiritual parenting and correction was so important as well. To this day I can say that all that God has done in my life can be attributed to knowing you, I have a passion to spread His love and healing to all nations and tribes. Thank you for everything. May God bless you and the family for generations.

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