On a winter-dark Tuesday afternoon recently, the common room at Fraser’s Apple Valley independent living facility was bursting with light, laughter and cupcakes.
It was the weekly meeting of the Rock Star Book Club, started eight years ago by volunteers Jeff and Shari Hegna to pump a little learning, a lot of community and an overflow of fun into the lives of a dozen or so adult residents with autism spectrum disorder. While the books read and (sort of) discussed each week — on this day, “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell for more accelerated readers and Kate DiCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” for those needing a bit more help — are a factor in the club’s appeal, residents say there’s another compelling reason for its enduring popularity.
“It’s Jeff,” said a smiling Sandra Lindell, whose December birthday and Vikings fandom were celebrated with purple and yellow frosted cupcakes. “We have fun!”
In fact Hegna, a freewheeling extrovert with a bubbly personality who you could say lets his hair down if he had any, does arrive with an ever-changing menu of weekly treats.
When they started this thing, the Hegnas say, they never expected to still be driving to Apple Valley from work in Minneapolis or home in Lakeville every Tuesday eight years later. Back then, Jeff said, the couple jumped at what seemed like a good chance to volunteer together.
Hegna, who then worked for Target and had taken advantage of other opportunities to volunteer, saw a plan of Target’s to start book clubs at residences in the Twin Cities as perfect for Shari. His wife of 26 years is a medical technologist with the Veteran’s Administration and a voracious reader who’s belonged to multiple book clubs of her own.
At first, they thought they were going to lead a book club for children. But that plan never came to fruition. Instead, the Hegnas were asked if they’d be willing to lead a book club serving adult residents at Fraser’s Apple Grove Court housing community. At first, they weren’t sure. They have adult daughters — one an accountant and the other a kindergarten teacher — but no experience working with people with autism and other disabilities.
But they decided to give it a try. Then they decided to stick with it.
Even when Target discontinued its participation after three years. Even after Jeff moved on to a job at U.S. Bank. They are here, every Tuesday, September through May. In fact, Jeff said, he told U.S. Bank officials that he would only accept their job offer if they agreed to let him head to Fraser every Tuesday afternoon.
It was an easy call to make, said Kate Quinn, vice chairwoman and chief administrative officer for U.S. Bank.
“Among the things we’re most proud of at U.S. Bank are our commitment to the community and supporting the programs and projects our employees are passionate about,” she said in an e-mail. “Jeff’s enthusiasm for Fraser is palpable, and it is great to see the book club continue to flourish years after its inception.”
The Hegnas, too, say they’ve flourished.
“We didn’t plan any of this,” Jeff said. “We didn’t plan that we would develop a relationship with [the residents]. We didn’t plan that the books would be such a great hit … We didn’t expect any of this.”
Added Shari: “Once we got in here, we started developing relationships. You get attached, you get to know them.”
Kim Jagaraj, service coordinator for Fraser Independent Living, said the Rock Star Book Club is one of the most successful and enduring volunteer programs at Fraser’s 16 residential facilities. She credits the Hegnas’ excitement, energy and commitment. They buy all the books and all the treats. They even paid for custom “Rock Star Book Club” T-shirts with each resident’s name on the back.
After Target moved on, Jagaraj said, she was delighted and a bit surprised when the Hegnas asked her if they could keep coming.
“I said, ‘Absolutely!’ ”
Why does Jagaraj think the Hegnas stick with it all these years later?
“As much as they bring community together here, this gives back to them,” she said. “And, in their hearts, I know they also learn from these guys and have taken gifts from them as well.”
Simply by being present and recognizing residents’ need for community, Jeff and Shari Hegna have become invaluable, she said.
“My goal is to help [residents] enrich their lives, help them become independent and successful people living here,” Jagaraj said. “My goal is to create a community where they’re working together, that helps them increase their friendships.”
After cupcakes, it’s time for the Rock Star Book Club to read.
While there is banter and laughter, this is also serious business. The book club members’ names are listed on a big board affixed with stars to denote attendance. Another sign lists a set of rules, such as “Have Fun,” “Listen to reader,” “Be respectful” and “Be Kind, Be Polite.” As with any group, Jeff said, the rules are not always followed. There have been conflicts. Once, the Hegnas learned that a resident was being bullied. The couple, who has received training about working with vulnerable adults, alerted staff and worked with the residents to resolve their issues.
On this day, the readers — ages 35 to 75 — break into two groups. Shari, who chooses the books, sits with the more advanced readers in a circle of upholstered chairs and small sofas. Jeff sits nearby at a table with those who struggle a bit more. Over the next 40 minutes or so, members of both groups take turns reading aloud. When the hour is up, reading stops. There is no homework and not much discussion, except for questions about what a word means or how it’s pronounced.
Minutes after the reading starts, Jeff’s voice fills the room as his group goes over a passage from “Edward Tulane.”
“Who wants to eat rabbit pie?” he asks, before turning to resident Jennie Dean. “Jennie, do you want to eat rabbit pie?”
“No!” she said, giggling.
“Me neither,” he said, laughing.
There are no guffaws from the advanced readers. That might be, Shari said, because she’s quieter and more reserved than her husband. Or it could have something to do with the subject matter — books geared to older readers, some with more mature themes and adult language. Whereas Jeff’s group reads a different book each week (think “Green Eggs and Ham”), Shari’s group might spend an entire term on a Harry Potter book or a story about teen love. One thing Shari’s readers refuse to do, she and Jeff say, is read “naughty” words aloud.
“They just won’t do it,” he said. “They’ll skip it, or say ‘blank.’ It’s pretty hilarious.”
Martin Odian, the only male in the book club on this day, enjoys coming every week and reading new stories.
“It’s interesting to hear different ideas,” he said.
What has been interesting to Jeff is discovering over the past eight years that making a difference in people’s lives can be as simple as showing up, listening. Just being present.
“I guess my goal in talking about this is to maybe inspire someone else to do what we’re doing,” he said. “Maybe they’ll read this and say, ‘I can do that. That would be fun.’ So they can go out and pay it forward.
“Honestly,” he added, “I thought this would fizzle out, that they wouldn’t be as engaged as they’ve been.”
Instead, the Rock Stars keep rocking on.
“How will I know when this is done?” he asked. “When the residents feel that it’s done. We’re not there yet.”