On Sept. 9, Mayfield Heights lost not only a dedicated city councilwoman, former school board member and avid volunteer – but a maternal figure who unconditionally loved her city and its residents. Donna Renee Finney, a 38-year resident of Mayfield Heights, lost her battle to pancreatic cancer at age 57.
Finney’s journey into leadership in Mayfield Heights launched in the mid ‘90s when she became PTA president, class mom and art teacher at Mayfield City Schools.
At the core of her efforts were her three children – especially her late son, Morris, who had cerebral palsy.
Morris had to attend preschool as part of the Orange School District, because at the time, Mayfield didn’t have a program for disabled children that Finney wanted her son to be in, said her daughters, Jessica Brown and Jennifer Finney, both residents of Mayfield Heights.
She was elected to the Mayfield Heights City School Board and pushed for an inclusive program that allowed students with disabilities to attend classes alongside their peers. She served on the school board for two, four-year terms until the mid-2000s.
“She was an advocate for special needs in Mayfield schools,” Brown said. “She really made sure that my brother and other kids weren’t pushed aside or made to feel different.”
Once her daughters graduated high school, Finney recognized a need to take her ideas for her beloved city one step further. She was elected as a councilwoman of Mayfield Heights City Council in 2006.
“Besides her children, I think Mayfield Heights meant everything to her,” Jennifer Finney said. “Her goal in life was to be a stay-at-home mom, and as she got older, she really put all of her focus into the city. She wanted the best for everyone.”
Finney was a staunch supporter of the city’s police and fire departments. She was also a key advocate for the Mayfield Heights rec center, Wildcat Sports and Fitness, and recent plans to update the facility.
Her daughters said she was known to always answer her phone and help everyone she possibly could.
Finney went on to serve four terms as a city councilwoman, as well as council president in 2018 and 2019.
Mayfield Heights Mayor Anthony DiCicco, whom Finney unsuccessfully ran against for mayor in 2013, recalled Finney as being “honest,” “prepared” and “task oriented” throughout their shared years on city government.
“As ideas came up, she was definitely in favor of anything she felt would help the residents with their issues at home and just made their experience with the city better,” DiCicco told the CJN.
Even when Finney went to Florida to spend her winters, DiCicco said Finney would call him almost every day, asking about city occurrences.
“She definitely loved Mayfield Heights,” DiCicco said. “She leaves behind a legacy of volunteerism, of caring deeply for the city and a dedication that you don’t see in a lot of people who get involved. Her motivation was genuine.”
Her desire to make lasting change followed her into numerous volunteer positions she held. She served as president of the Hillcrest 100, an organization that comes to the financial aid of first responders; secretary of FOPA Lodge 27; a member of the community emergency response team; trustee of the Mayfield Regional Library Friends of the Library; and a member of Mayfield Height’s Mass Inoculation Point of Dispensing team.
Finney was also heavily involved in Lyndhurst Chabad Family Center in Mayfield Heights and her grandchildren’s schools. Like when her daughters were in school, Finney would read to children on their birthdays, especially if a child’s parent was busy with work.
She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Aug. 13.
Brown said that Mayfield Heights police officers asked if they could hold Finney’s casket for her funeral Sept. 14. There were firetrucks and police cars in front of the funeral procession, and those who couldn’t take off work stood in front of city hall, Finney’s daughters said.
“She wasn’t just our mom, our grandma, our sister – the whole world saw her this way,” Brown said. “She didn’t close her heart to us, she opened it to the world. And it really showed on her final day when we put her to rest.”
Finney is survived by her partner of many years, Howard Sonenstein; daughters, Jessica (Joel) Brown and Jennifer Finney; sisters, Dena (Jonathan) Fields and Dawn Schwartz; grandchildren, Elianna Klein, Joey Kowalczyk and Miles Brown; and many nieces and nephews. In addition to her parents, she was predeceased by her son, Morris Finney.