Learning and Teaching Life Skills
August 25th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Lane Hegel, right, director of operations for the Graham County Rehabilitation Center in Safford, Arizona, always hoped his son, Matthew, would work at GCRC. Here he prepares to sort and tag clothing in the GCRC Thrift Store.

It seems beyond coincidental that Lane Hegel began working with Graham County Rehabilitation Center in Safford, Arizona, one month before his son, Matthew, was diagnosed with a cognitive disability while starting kindergarten.

GCRC is the only locally operated nonprofit in Graham County providing services to those with a developmental disability.

“I had never worked in the special education field before,” Lane says. “I move here and start working in July, and my son starts school in August. All of a sudden, he is in the special education program.”

The news came as a surprise and shock to Matthew’s parents.

“We never saw it,” Lane says. “I had no inclination he had any issues.”

Matthew also has epilepsy. When he was 13 or 14 years old, he suffered grand mal seizures. An electroencephalogram revealed he was having seizures every minute. With medication, the seizures were controlled.

The Hegels moved to Arizona from California in 2003 after Lane completed a master’s degree in Biblical studies at Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley. He began working part time in GCRC’s adult program in July.

Within four months, he was hired full time. Now, as director of operations, he oversees the business, including a staff of 40, adult and child programs, thrift store and donation/recycling center. He also serves as the GCRC trainer.

With a bachelor’s degree in business from Western New Mexico University and master’s in Biblical studies, Lane’s position as director of operations seems a natural fit for GCRC. But it wasn’t a path he originally considered.

“I thought at one time I was going to go down this path, and I made choices that kept me from going down that path,” Lane says.

Matthew’s condition motivated Lane.

“I fell in love with the work,” he says. “I wanted to help my son, to better understand. I was mastering at work the same things that help me support my son. A lot of the training and skills I picked up here helped a lot, and not just with my son—my daughter, too. We all kind of work the same way.

“It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Matthew is now 19. Daughter Katelyn is 14.

Lane says he always assumed his son would someday attend GCRC. Matthew now works with GCRC, and is an example of success and what his father desires for every program participant.

The younger Hegel graduated with a diploma from Mt. Graham High School in Safford, something Lane wasn’t sure he would ever be able to do.

Matthew has spent the past two years with GCRC learning skills that will help him become independent, while also working at Main Street Cafe. The cafe is operated by SAGE—a department of Easter Seals Blake Foundation in Tucson.

Café manager Cindy Gilliam is quick to sing Matthew’s praises.

“Matt has worked here since high school and has gone from just working after school, becoming our Saturday go-to guy to running the register,” Cindy says. “The job skills really, really increased. Matt’s a very smart young man. And very kind and very easy to get along with.”

Matthew blushes with the praise.

“The goal is to get me out of there, to get me out in the community,” Matthew says. “I have learned the box truck, lesson on safety, how to use tools properly, to inspect buildings and vehicles.”

He plans to attend college to study welding.

Even as Matthew continues marching toward independence and acquiring a variety of vocational and life skills, Lane works hard to help GCRC reach important growth goals.

“I want us to be financially stable,” Lane says. “We are really working toward that. I would like to see us expand services. There are other rural communities like Duncan and Wilcox that need services.”

Just as important may be his mission to change a culture and perception that has defined the 50-year-old agency.

“We are not a day care for people with some type of disability,” Lane explains. “We are a training facility—training not just for vocational skills, but life skills so that people are equipped to live the life they want. That is really our goal.

“I would like us to have that reputation as an agency where someone is going to come in here and after a short period of time basically change their life. They will learn to manage their own behavior, learn social skills and basic life skills that will help them function independently in an adult world.”

As a trainer of life skills, Lane is also a student, learning to navigate a complex, challenging job and ever-changing personal life.

“You need to take them from where they are to where they want to be,” he says of his program participants.

It’s sound advice for anybody in any stage of life.

Fourteen years after changing paths, Lane says, “It just worked out. Providence? And God, I don’t know? But I believe I am where I need to be, doing what I need to be doing.”