COLUMBIA — Susan Stegeman is terrified of heights.
Yet, because of her dedication to the organization she works for, she's standing on a ledge at the top of The Tiger Hotel — ten stories high — with a tangle of ropes and harnesses on, about to go over the edge.
"I need you to step off the building," her instructor says to her as Stegeman leans over the edge.
Stegeman has been working for Special Olympics Missouri for 18 years, making her their longest-serving employee. As the chief development officer, she helps raise funds and organize events.
This year, for the first time, the group teamed up with Over the Edge, a company that helps nonprofits raise money by offering participants a chance to rappel down a local building in exchange for pledges. Despite Stegeman's fear, she was the one who came up with the idea, and no one had to talk her into participating.
"I chose to do this," Stegeman said. "My dad is telling me 'You're not doing it. I'm not going to let you do it.' OK, dad. I'm 47 years old. I don't think you really have a choice. I'm not really asking for your permission."
Stegeman first got the idea for the event through persistent e-mails promoting an Over the Edge fundraiser for a Georgia Tech program.
"I thought, 'Wait a minute. This is so cool. This is so different. I've never heard of anything like this,'" she said.
She sent the idea out to a few people, and soon her phone was ringing with people excited about the event.
The event continues a tradition of outside-the-box fundraisers for Special Olympics.
"We try to do that. If we don't, then what's so different about it than any other event in the community?" Stegeman said. "Other than the cause, of course. You get a whole different realm of participants if you do something a little different."
To raise money, Special Olympics Missouri has held events such as bowling tournaments, softball tournaments, college trivia nights and the Polar Plunge, a winter swim at Stephens Lake Park that Stegeman has participated in three times.
Originally, they thought about holding the Over the Edge event at the press box at Memorial Stadium but were unable to gain approval.
Columbia is one of four Over the Edge events being held around the state. The others took place at the The Clubhouse on Baltimore in Kansas City, the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis and the State Office Building in Springfield.
In order to rappel, participants had to be at least 18 years old, weigh less than 300 pounds and raise $1,000 for the organization.
Special Olympics Missouri made the fundraising part easy, giving participants a profile page on the group's Web site, where they could post pictures, biographical information and keep track of donations. Donors could pledge money right on the page.
In Stegeman's case, she sent out an e-mail to her friends and family, letting them know she was going Over the Edge for Special Olympics. Thanks to 25 online donors, she was able to crack the $1,000 mark Thursday.
"My mother-in-law gave to me. I don't know what that means," Stegeman said. "Her husband actually said 'Carol, what does this mean? That you're willing to send your daughter-in-law rappelling off the top of a building?' They laughed more about it than anybody."
Before the event Stegeman was a little nervous, but she had a plan.
"I'm pretty sure I'm just going to get into that happy place and get into that mode that I would do if I were going to do anything a little bit scary, whether that's speaking in front of 500 people or back when I was competing in sports," she said. "Focus on the target and the ground at a slow speed."
However, the night before, Stegeman said that she woke up at 3 a.m. with a pit in her stomach and that she woke up every hour after that.
"I can't back out now," she told herself. "I already raised my $1,000. People are going to expect me to go through with it."
Before they could rappel down The Tiger Hotel, participants had to be fitted for harnesses and go through training, rappelling from a 50-foot ledge.
The instructors at the practice site taught Stegeman and Diane Brimer, her co-worker, the proper techniques and went over the equipment and safety instructions.
At one point, they had Brimer kneel on the ground to demonstrate how the ropes will support her.
"Is this where you pray?" Stegeman asked.
Now up on the roof, Stegemen walks around and fiddles with the ropes, trying to psyche herself up.
"Have they already done the scheduled rope check?" she asks. "There was supposed to be one at 3:25. That's why I scheduled my time for 3:30."
Event coordinator Joe Buechter, who rappelled about an hour earlier, tries to offer Stegeman a bit of advice.
"The only part that's really scary—" Buechter says before Stegeman cuts him off.
"Why is he telling me this? I don't want to hear it," Stegeman says.
After watching Brimer make it safely to the sidewalk below, Stegeman steps up to the ledge and leans back.
"I need you to step off the building," her instructor says
"I don't want to look down, so I'm not going to," Stegeman tells him. And with a few deep breaths, Stegeman closes her eyes and steps backwards over the east side of The Tiger Hotel, leaving her dangling in midair, connected to the building by two ropes.
Once Stegeman is able to get over the edge, she manages to have a safe trip down to the sidewalk below where she is greeted by her two sons, Seth and Scott, her husband Steve, and her mother Juanita Rampy.
"Oh my gosh! I can not feel my legs at all!" Stegeman says on the ground. "I'll never do this again. I've done a lot of things, this is the hardest thing I've ever done."
"Just remember that it was your idea," says Special Olympics Missouri CEO Mark Musso, who rappelled down earlier, stopping to shout, "Why can't we do telethons?"
Despite her fears, Stegeman couldn't pass up an opportunity to raise money and awareness for a cause she's worked so hard for.
She said her favorite part about working for Special Olympics is getting to know the athletes and seeing how much they want to be involved in athletics.
"You see the athletes interacting with someone who had never experienced Special Olympics before, and you see them get it," she said. "The light bulb goes on."
During the Special Olympics, Stegeman sits on the sidelines to watch it all unfold. On Saturday, though, she got off the sidelines and went over the edge.
"I wanted to be one of those cool people who rappel down while waving at the same time, but I just couldn't be one of those people," Stegeman said. "I'm sure there's going to be some funny conversations around the water cooler on Monday."