HSU HUMANITARIANS HONORED
By LORETTA FULTON
The following article by Loretta Fulton first was published in the Abilene Reporter-News June 29
July will be a momentous month for Dennis and Janelle O’Connell, but June wasn’t bad either.
On July 7, the couple will celebrate 40 years of marriage and on July 20 they will depart for Thailand for their 20th mission trip with the physical therapy program at Hardin-Simmons University. And so, what possibly could have happened in June that would come close to either of those?
On June 13, they were in Chicago to receive the Humanitarian Award from the American Physical Therapy Association. Humble as well as gifted, both O’Connells point to the rest of the physical therapy department as the real honorees.
“We are extremely humbled by this award,” Janelle said, adding that the entire department should be honored. “We all have that servant heart.”
The O’Connells joined the department in 1995 at the invitation of William Gould, a friend and founding department program director. Today, Janelle is department chair and a professor and Dennis is a professor.
“She does the heavy lifting,” he joked about his wife’s position.
They are so highly thought of by current and former faculty and students that being nominated for the award shouldn’t come as a big surprise. One of the people nominating them was a former colleague in the department, Mary Lou Garrett.
“Ther compassionate, humble, selfless service is an outpouring of their sweet servant hearts,” Garrett wrote.
A physical therapy doctoral student, Shelby Richeson, wrote in a letter of congratulations that it was because of the O’Connells and the mission programs they started that she chose Hardin-Simmons.
“I always tell people,” she wrote, “that the reason I went to Hardin-Simmons is because the program is mission-minded and gives opportunities to use PT as a tool for ministry. I LOVE IT!”
When the O’Connells were invited to join the HSU program in 1995, they were teaching in San Antonio. Janelle was an assistant professor and coordinator for health education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dennis was an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Janelle holds a doctorate in health education and health promotion from the University of Toledo. After moving to Abilene in 1995 to teach, she also enrolled in the physical therapy master’s degree program at HSU and was a member of the new school’s first graduating class. She added a transitional doctor of physical therapy degree from HSU in 2008.
Four years after the O’Connells joined the HSU faculty, they started a physical therapy ministries program that includes local missions endeavors, as well as travel to Mexico, Guatemala, South Texas, Haiti, and Peru. This year’s trip to Thailand will be a first.
The first trip, which was to Mexico, came at the request of a student at the time, Adam Meirhofer, who had been on a mission trip before. Dennis jumped on the idea.
“I said, ‘sure, let’s go,’” he recalled.
From then on, a summer mission trip for students who are ending the first year of the 28-month program has been part of the program. Students who are unable to go on the travel trips work locally with patients. The travel trips can be expensive–this year’s will cost $2,600 each–and all the participants are required to raise their own money. A huge garage sale accounts for some of the money, with the rest mainly coming from fund-raising letters.
A donor chips in to help out, if needed. The O’Connells want all the students to experience the travel missions if they can.
“It’s such a great experience for everybody,” Janelle said.
Locally, the department pairs with Boots on the Ground to build wheelchair ramps, Global Samaritan Resources, DRI, the American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity, and Presbyterian Medical Care Mission. The department also holds a clinic on campus each Friday.
In 2015, the department joined with Joni & Friends, an organization founded by Joni Eareckson Tada, who broke her neck in a diving accident when she was 17 that left her a quadriplegic. Purpose of the Joni & Friends ministry is to address the needs of families affected by disability.
The Hardin-Simmons physical therapy program is the first and only physical therapy program in the country to partner with Joni & Friends, Janelle O’Connell said. Through that partnership, HSU offers physical therapy students a course called Beyond Suffering. It teaches physical therapy students how to help people who may believe that a disability is a punishment or a curse.
The Joni & Friends partnership also allows students to participate in a family camp that provides respite care and the Wheels for the World program. The trip to Thailand will be part of the Wheels for the World program. While in Thailand, the Hardin-Simmons group will work will about 200 patients, helping fit them to wheelchairs or assisting with other mobility devices. Just getting a patient out of bed into a wheelchair can work wonders, Dennis O’Connell said. They are able to see people at eye level and get out of their home, back into society.
“It’s an amazing change,” Dennis said.
It’s no coincidence that both the O’Connells are passionate about the same kind of work. They met at Kent State University in the 1970s when both were working on master’s degrees in exercise physiology. From there, they went to the University of Toledo, where Dennis earned a doctorate in exercise physiology and Janelle got a doctorate in health education/health promotion.
Ten years after getting his doctorate, Dennis added a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, where he also was an assistant professor. Janelle added a master’s degree and a transitional doctorate in physical therapy after the couple moved to Abilene to teach at Hardin-Simmons.
A colleague who wrote a letter of recommendation for the APTA Humanitarian Award, Marsha Rutland, noted that the compassion the O’Connells feel toward people they work with has spread.
“Because of Drs. Janelle and Dennis O’Connell,” Rutland wrote, “our students have learned how to serve others through their profession.”
That is something the O’Connells are proud of. They are members of Holy Family Catholic Church and strongly believe that Christians should serve others. They are pleased to see that their beliefs spread to their daughter, Keelan O’Connell Camacho, and to the students they teach.
Keelan and her husband, Jonathan, live in Washington, D.C., and are helping fund four clinics in Bolivia, Jonathan’s native country. A couple of the O’Connells’ former students are now involved in full-time missions work. Others stress how much they enjoy the missions part of the curriculum.
“Our students,” Janelle said, “continue to give back to their own communities.”