Step Up to the Plate

Family is redefined for a Newbury Park boy who Is being raised by his grandparents

Written by BECCA WHITNALL  

Phot by RICHARD GILLARD Todd Gunterman preps for a wind-up after a PONY baseball game. His grandparents, Matt and Barbie Heavrin, are right behind, supporting his every move.

Photo by RICHARD GILLARD
Todd Gunterman preps for a wind-up after a PONY baseball game. His grandparents, Matt and Barbie Heavrin, are right behind, supporting his every move.

Todd Gunterman is quite the utility player for his Newbury Park PONY baseball team. The 9-year-old plays first, second, third, pitcher and catcher for the Padres of the Mustang division. And, according to his grandpa, he’s good at all of them.
Baseball is just one of the young boy’s activities his mom will never get to watch.
She’ll never know that Todd’s a math whiz or that if he can’t be the next Mike Trout he’d like to combine his talents and one day be the manager of a big-league team.
“Maybe after I’m done playing, maybe I could be a manager because I could work with batting averages and stuff,” Todd says.
His mom will never know he inherited many of her mannerisms and facial expressions. That’s because Army Spc. Hannah McKinney died in 2006 in an accident while serving in Iraq.
Todd was only 2 at the time, so he knows his mother mostly through stories and photographs. There’s one on the front of the binder he carries to school and more on the walls of his home, where he lives with his grandparents, Barbie and Matt Heavrin.

Army Spc. Hannah McKinney cuddles with Todd in 2005 shortly before she was deployed to Iraq.

Army Spc. Hannah McKinney cuddles with Todd in 2005 shortly before she was deployed to Iraq.

Todd’s biological father took himself out of the picture before the boy was born, his grandmother says. Todd’s never met him. And although his stepfather visited early on, he hasn’t seen the child in a long time.

But the Heavrins have been there all along.
Hannah was living with her parents in Newbury Park when her baby was born. She took Todd with her to Washington state for a short time while she was stationed at Fort Lewis, but when she was deployed to the Middle East, she brought Todd to her parents. He’s been in their care ever since.
“She had a choice and could have left him with anyone, but she chose us,” says Barbie, 54. “I thought we were done (parenting). The only problem for me is I was 20 years younger the first time we did this.”
Barbie says she comes home tired after her work as a hospice nurse and taking Todd to baseball practice. The last thing she wants to do is head over to Walnut Elementary to attend a function at Todd’s school. But she goes because her grandson wants her to.

“I think, ‘I didn’t want to do this anymore,’ but I do it because it’s the right thing, and I ultimately end up enjoying myself and I’m always glad I did,” she says. “You kick yourself in the behind and go, ‘Oh, I would have missed this!’”
The real joy, says Todd’s grand-father, is just being around the energetic young boy. Matt, 53, and a power plant operator for L.A. County Sanitation District, finds being stuck on a school schedule difficult when the family wants to pick up and have some fun, but being so directly involved with his grandson makes it worth it.

Hannah in 2002. Todd's mother was 20 when she died.

Hannah in 2002. Todd’s mother was 20 when she died.

“I get to teach him how to ride a bike and all the fun things the parent would do and the grandparent would just hear about,” Matt says.
One thing Todd enjoys with his grandparents is going to the annual Snowball Express event. Sponsored by American Airlines, the event honors and provides support to children whose parents have died while on active military duty.
The purpose is to build new memories, Barbie says.

“Not that they’re ever going to forget their loved one who sacrificed their life . . . but it takes one to know one, so when they gather together, it’s a unique group,” she says. At school, she adds, Todd is the only child who’s lost a parent to war.
It can be difficult when friends at school ask where his mother is or how she died.
“There’s no empathy,” Barbie says. Classmates may offer sympathy but only others with similar experiences understand what it’s like to live through that kind of loss. “That’s unique to that group of people.”
Although he visits his late mother’s grave from time to time, Todd spent this last Mother’s Day morning making breakfast in bed for his grandmother Barbie. With his grandparents and his extended family, Todd is building new memories with each new day.

Share