For Helen Henne, volunteerism isn’t about getting recognition or praise. It’s not something done for personal gain. It’s a passion, a desire to do what’s right and take an active role in making the community a better place to live.
Although the lifelong Southington resident doesn’t seek recognition, her lifetime of work in Southington hasn’t gone unnoticed as Henne was named as the Southington Chapter of UNICO National recipient of the 68th annual Gold Medal of Honor award last week. She now joins a prestigious list of citizens honored for their work and dedication to service above self, the organization’s motto.
Members of the UNICO selection committee surprised Henne last week, part of a longstanding tradition of notifying the winners in person, and she said she was shocked to learn that she had been selected with so many other great volunteers in the community.
“I’ve always preferred to stay behind the scenes and I’ve taken part in volunteering simply because I’ve enjoyed it,” Henne said. “I don’t know what set me apart. I remember thinking, 'Do they have the right person?'”
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Mark Sciota, co-chairman and longtime member of the UNICO selection committee, said as members sat to look at the list of Henne’s accomplishments, she immediately stood out as someone who has provided a lifetime of service through the school district, the Calvanese Foundation and various youth organizations including the Southington Valley Midget Football League.
“I’ve been on this committee for many years and her list of accomplishments and activities is very impressive,” Sciota said. “Once we reviewed the documentation given to us, there was not a lot of discussion needed. She just rose to the top.”
William DellaVecchia, co-chair of the selection committee, said despite all her volunteer work, many people may not realize everything Henne has done. He described her as a “someone who always steps up to help in any way she can, whether it’s organizing events or simply moving tables to make sure everything is in place.” He said Henne is one of those behind-the-scenes kind of people.
The daughter of Stanley and Helen Dlugolenski, Henne was born in raised in Southington. She grew up along West Street in a home next to her grandparents’ farm and is a graduate of Southington High School when the school was still located at Derynoski.
Henne initially had plans to become a teacher, but just three weeks before graduation she was offered a job with Aetna Insurance in Hartford and would go on to work in a variety of roles with the company over the next 15 years.
During that time, she was introduced to her husband Richard Henne through a friend and the two went out on a blind date. The couple later married and when their first son Brian was born, she gave up her job to be a stay-at-home mom and assist with his needs after he was diagnosed as autistic. The couple would go on to have three more children: Mark, Matthew and Susan.
As the children got older, Helen Henne said she found herself craving more adult interaction and soon after began volunteering at the North Center School, DePaolo Middle School and others in town. She served as PTA president; would read to children; helped organize a wide variety fundraisers; and took on numerous other responsibilities alongside fellow parents and volunteers.
“For me it was about spending time with the great people you meet, the satisfaction of being able to get things done. That’s the real reason I started and I was instantly hooked,” Henne said. "If it wasn’t for my husband being so supportive and helping care for our children, I couldn’t have done as much as I have."
From there, the list of accomplishments and volunteer activities for Henne is virtually endless. But what makes Henne’s story so different from others in the community is the adversity she has faced and the way she has continued to make a difference despite facing tragedy on several occasions.
In 1999, Matthew Henne was killed at the age of 16 while operating a spinning ride at Lake Compounce and not too long after her second son, Mark, passed away as a result of a heart condition that eventually claimed his life.
During these tough times, she said the community and members of the Calvanese Foundation came forward to offer their support and only served to further fuel her desire to give back to the community. She has since spent more than a decade working with the Calvanese Foundation and has been a volunteer at each of their annual Galas, “working her buns off to make sure everything was perfect,” according to DellaVecchia.
Patty Boissonneault, who nominated Henne for the award, said she has been impressed with the way Henne continued to contribute to the school district, even after her children were fully grown.
She has been a volunteer in Southington High School’s guidance department for more than decade; has spent the past six years as director of the College and Career Resource Center; has worked since 1996 as a member of the SHS All Night Graduation Party committee including serving as chair in 1994; and is a 17 year member of the school’s Gridiron Club as well as a member of Southington Band Backers.
Henne has also served on various committees including in searches for a new assistant superintendent and a new athletic director, was part of the VoAg Support for Approval Committee, the Accreditation Committee, the Alternative to Suspension Committee and the Southington High School Class Reunion Committee.
As a member of the Gridiron Club, she has spent the past 12 years working tirelessly towards the creation of a permanent concession stand at the football field by applying for grants and seeking school board approvals.
“There’s still work to be done and it’s one of my last main missions here in town,” she said. “Right now, I need to shift to work with the town to see that it happens. I may be traveling with a walker when it finally opens, but I will see it gets done.”
Outside the school system and Calvanese Foundation events, Henne is also an active volunteer at Immaculate Conception Church and is the corresponding secretary for the Immaculate Women’s Club.
“Perhaps the most amazing thing about Helen Henne is that she always forges on, no matter what,” Boissonneault said. “She is someone who can always be counted on.”
Henne’s efforts haven’t gone completely unrecognized in the community either. She was named to the Order of the Blue Knights at Southington High School in 2000 and was given an award as part of the district’s Profiles in Professionalism in 2010.
When you look at her complete body of work, Southington Chapter of UNICO National committee member Mike Fasulo said it’s a wonder she hasn’t been honored even more. He said she exemplifies what it means to be a dedicated volunteer and good citizen.
“A select few people will fit every category for this award so strongly as she did and that’s why she stood out,” he said. “She is an example of the motto we use in the club, service above self.”
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