COLUMBIA — When Larry Stephens was 18 months old, his mother, Jan Stephens, received a call from a St. Louis doctor informing her that her son would never be able to walk. After a series of tests, he had been diagnosed as intellectually disabled and autistic.
Jan Stephens was told that her son would never be able to talk; he would not make it past the intellectual level of a 3-year-old; his fine and gross motor skills would remain next-to-none for the rest of his life.
But on a recent Saturday, Larry Stephens, now 32, jumped into the pool at the MU Student Recreation Complex. Surrounded by Special Olympics volunteers and as family and friends cheered him on, he swam the backstroke across the pool’s length. Terri Hilt, his head swim coach and older sister, said it is his best stroke.
“He actually got the gold medal in the World Games in North Carolina for the backstroke in 1999,” she said.
Hilt's smile broadened as the conversation touched on her brother. In addition to his 1999 gold medal, Larry Stephens was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and has spoken in front of as many as 2,000 people as a Special Olympics Global Messenger.
Hilt, who gives her time to athletes like her brother on a weekly basis, serves as one of the many Columbia volunteers who contributed to a recent city accomplishment.
According to a report released last month, Columbia volunteers are investing more hours than ever before. In fiscal year 2010, volunteers put 48,076 hours of service into programs tracked by the city — the largest number reported since the city began to record the data in 1997. Additionally, a rising interest in volunteering was reflected by a 27 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 in new groups and individuals who contacted the city wanting to know how they could help.
Hilt, who was inspired to begin volunteering with the Special Olympics after her brother’s experiences with the program, enjoys being a part of the athletes’ accomplishments.
“It’s awesome just to see our guys … showing off their skills and proving all of the doctors wrong when they were born saying they wouldn’t amount to anything,” Hilt said.
Jan Stephens, who has been involved in the Special Olympics for 23 years, said seeing athletes like her son achieve their goals and improve their lives is what keeps her motivated to continue volunteering with the program. This takes time and patience, she said.
“You just take little baby steps, and you get there,” she said. “You just keep working with them.”
This year's tally is up from 47,387 hours a year ago and from 43,546 hours five years ago.
City volunteer coordinator Leigh Britt said that although she and her staff are unable to pinpoint exactly why volunteer hours have increased, they appreciate the efforts they have seen from both residents and staff.
“The total number of hours is a tremendous contribution,” Britt said. “I think that the reason we have such a great number of volunteer hours and so many people that volunteer with the city is that we just have a lot of consistent opportunities for people to volunteer, and we have a staff that are committed to getting volunteers involved with their activities.”
'The biggest bang for your buck'
Mike Heimos, storm water outreach and education educator for the city, served as one of the staff members responsible for attracting volunteers. His program logged more than 5,000 volunteer hours last year and experienced the largest increase citywide, according to Britt's report to the City Council.
“One of the things I concentrated on this year was just getting people involved,” Heimos said. “The biggest bang for your buck that you’re ever going to get ... is getting the public involved. That’s been my number one priority since I started.”
His program, which works to educate citizens about the harmful effects of improper disposal of garbage and chemicals on local water sources, also organizes trash cleanups around creeks and streams in which volunteers participate.
Volunteers have been receptive to the program, Heimos said.
“When you say to someone, ‘Hey, you’re going to go out and clean streams,’ they kind of look at you like, ‘What now? We’re going where?’” he said. “But you know, once people get out and they do it one time, many folks repeat and come back three or four times. That’s kind of the thing that’s been the best about it.”
Andrew Lovewell, an MU senior who has volunteered with the program, was surprised by how much trash was picked up on his first cleanup.
“I’ve gained responsibility to not litter or ruin our environment,” Lovewell said. “You learn that you’re not the only person who’s affected when you throw something out of the window.”
'Many opportunities for citizens'
Wayne Behymer, a life-long Columbia resident, has learned similar lessons cleaning up trash on Rolling Hills Road, where he lives. He adopted the road through the city’s Adopt-a-Spot Litter Control program five years ago.
“It just reflects on the community, all of that trash out on the side of the roads,” said Behymer, who is retired. “Cleaning up just makes it look better.”
Britt said city programs attract a variety of volunteers, from students to senior citizens.
“One of the things that is so wonderful about Columbia is that we have such a diverse population,” Britt said. “Certainly students are a big chunk of the people that volunteer with the city, … but we have many permanent citizens, families, seniors, folks from all backgrounds that volunteer with the city.”
Britt thinks the key to getting all of these groups involved is offering a large number of volunteer opportunities.
“This last year we had nine different city departments that used volunteers,” Britt said. “When we have that much to choose from and that many opportunities for citizens to participate in, then we’re naturally going to draw from a wide variety of people in the community.”
Tracye Harmon, volunteer coordinator with the Columbia Police Department, said working with and meeting a variety of people is what she enjoys most about her volunteer work.
“I love the camaraderie,” she said. “It’s really nice to be in a community that will really work together.”
Harmon said this makes up for some of the more disturbing experiences that can come with working closely with crime at a police department.
“When you see a lot of the negative things, it’s nice to see some positive things that come out of it,” she said.
'We are here and available'
Behymer, a regular volunteer at the Lake of the Woods Visitors’ Center, has seen positive experiences coming out of negative ones in his work as well. One morning soon after he began giving his time to the center, a young woman with an 18-month-old child came in with an unusual request.
“Her story was that she had left her husband in Alabama and was going to her parents’,” Behymer said. “Two of her brothers were with her, and they had driven all night and were dead tired and wanted a cat nap. This young mother knew that if the baby had been in the car, there was no way her brothers could sleep.”
The woman asked if she and her baby could sit with Behymer inside the center for a while. Behymer offered her a cup of coffee and chatted with her for an hour as the child played on the center’s blue carpet.
“It was kind of a sad situation, but we were here and available so that she could have somewhere to spend that time while the drivers got some sleep,” he said. “That really stands out in my memory.”
Although the Lake of the Woods Visitors’ Center receives only a small number of visitors per week, the prospect of helping someone who comes through the center’s doors keeps Behymer volunteering — even on the morning of Jan. 20, after 10 inches of snow had fallen.
“I really wanted to come in today, because I thought maybe I-70 would still be in bad shape,” he said. “People might be leery to drive on the road. So they might want to stop in here.”
While he waits for visitors, Behymer usually works on paperwork or entertains himself with magazines, newspapers and books behind the center’s large white desk. A coffee pot gurgles on a shelf in the corner. Neatly stacked mugs below it read, “volunteers are a work of heart.”
Jan Stephens, who described the Special Olympics athletes and volunteers who she works with as her “second family,” said the prospect of helping a child in the same way that other volunteers have helped her now-grown son, Larry, gives her a great feeling.
She said the Special Olympics helps autistic children like her son and Himmat Bal, a new athlete in the program, learn to socialize, adding that she recently got the chance to see the effects of her volunteer work.
“We all went to take a team picture, and I said, ‘Himmat, come with us, let’s go get our picture taken,’ and he took off with all of us,” she said.
Himmat’s mother was surprised by her son’s willingness to interact with the other athletes. “His mother was just sitting there going, ‘That has never happened before,’” Jan Stephens said.
Experiences such as this inspire her to continue volunteering.
“I don’t do it for me,” she said. “I do it for them. As they come out of the pool with big smiles on their faces, as I’m able to connect with them and get them to do something — that’s everything to me.”