Overcoming obstacles: Zionsville resident with intellectual disability fulfills dream of independent living

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From starting off in college as a George Mason student to becoming the first person with an intellectual disability to earn a spot on an NCAA Division I college cheer team, one Zionsville resident made it all the way to Capitol Hill despite the challenges. 

A.C. Heigl, 24, was given the opportunity of a lifetime when she became an intern on Capitol Hill in 2019. She had the privilege to assist with a variety of administrative tasks for members of Congress from Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona and Pennsylvania. She then took an internship with the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce in 2020. 

Heigl interned at the ZCC for nearly two years before setting her sights back on the nation’s capital, where she now resides independently.

At age 16, Heigl knew she wanted to have the same opportunities as her three other siblings when she watched them looking at colleges and planning their futures. That was when she first asked the question, “What are my options?” to her parents, Laura and John Heigl. Laura and John knew at that moment, A.C. would achieve far beyond even their expectations. That was when they began reaching out to programs to help her fulfill her dreams.

“As young parents, we didn’t have as many resources back then as we do today,” Laura said. “When we were raising A.C., we didn’t get to see other kiddos with intellectual disabilities going to birthday parties or going to school and football games, all of those experiences someone should have. Having these programs changed everything for us and AC.”

Options started opening for A.C. when Laura contacted the Best Buddies program in Washington, D.C. Best Buddies, cousin to Special Olympics, is a program that helps create friendships and peers for persons with and without intellectual disabilities. The resource set the stage for A.C.s dreams to come to fruition as it allowed her to attend college and gain independence. The program was one of the first in the country to offer inclusive living and integrated employment. 

“It’s incredibly difficult to get into these programs and a lot is expected. They have hundreds of applications a year and you go through a rigorous process and AC excelled at it. Graduating was a huge accomplishment for her.” Laura said. 

Through Best Buddies, A.C. attended a college program in 2019 at George Mason University, where she completed a four-year certificate program geared toward learning and obtaining certain skills through interning on Capitol Hill and various other activities. Her self-confidence grew and she tried out for the George Mason cheerleading team, becoming a cheerleader and flier. 

“A.C. now sees her life with the same opportunities and options as everyone else, and she told my husband and I that she didn’t want to live her life living at home,” Laura said. “She knows she needs some support, but she was determined to stay in Washington after graduating and create her life there.” 

A.C. was recognized for her accomplishments as a Capitol Hill intern and has since graduated. She now lives in Georgetown independently and is seeking a career in either child care or office personnel. 

“I want to be independent and have a life like other people,” A.C. said. “I want to live in an apartment and have a job.”

Laura hopes her daughter’s accomplishments inspire people with similar intellectual disabilities to boldly pursue their dreams.

“We feel a tremendous responsibility to be encouraging to other people,” Laura said. “We want other people to know that there are options.”

Making the most of an opportunity

As part of its effort to diversity its workforce, the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce hired A.C. – who has an intellectual disability –as an intern in 2020. She interned in office personnel with the chamber until 2022. 

Heigl had many tasks, from folding paper mailings to labeling envelopes alongside Allyson Gutwein, the chamber’s executive director. Heigl also participated in several chamber events, including the 2022 National Chamber of the Year event.

During her internship, Heigl inspired change when it came to inclusivity and inclusive employment in the chamber.

“A.C. became our ‘why’ when we considered how we better addressed inclusive workforce development.” Gutwein said. “We know that many individuals with disabilities in our community are unemployed or underemployed, and as we work to address our workforce challenges, we, as an organization, have been challenged by AC to create a better future for workforce involvement and activation for the community as a whole.”

Heigl was nominated for an IMPACT Award in the category of Intern of the Year for

her contribution to the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 4. IMPACT Awards are statewide honors that shine light on the importance of internships and applauds individuals who make the experiences meaningful and successful. 

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