Flip MOM upside down and you get WOW! According to Derek Stephenson, his wife, Heather, has major WOW factor!
“Heather works hard with our kids, spends hours teaching disabled children in her classroom and might get 30 seconds to herself during the day,” said Derek Stephenson, a self-employed exercise therapist. “She does so much, asks for nothing in return and gets no recognition. I knew I had to nominate my wife when I saw the contest in the magazine.”
“I was pretty blown away that he would even consider nominating me,” said Heather. “He’s not the kind of guy that usually does that sort of thing or likes to be in the spotlight. However, I guess if anyone truly knows what kind of mom I am, it is Derek.”
After trying to have children for many years and enduring seven miscarriages, the Stephensons decided to adopt a baby. “I went to all the doctors’ appointments with the birth mother and was in the delivery room when my first child, Turner, was born. It was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Heather. “When Turner was born, I was three months pregnant.” Six months later, Quincy Ryan entered the world in March of 2004. Little brother Stone followed, joining his sisters in March 2007.
When asked why their mother deserved to be recognized with this prestigious “Mom of the Year” award presented by the Carmel Community Newsletter, the Stephenson children sited kisses, hugs and bunnies.
“She plays with me and cuddles me,” said Stone.
“She’s very nice, holds my hand and kisses me at night,” said Quincy.
“My mom takes care of us, teaches us math and buys us bunnies,” said Turner. Princess and Lucky joined the family on Quincy’s birthday this past spring.
“Quincy loves bunnies so we gave her a baby bunny for her birthday,” said Heather. “Unfortunately, the next morning the little bunny had died. It was terrible.” The Stephensons visited the pet store that day to pick out a new bunny for Quincy. “Turner thought Princess needed a friend, so she used her own money and bought Lucky on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Not only does Heather have three children of her own, she is a WOW MOM to many children with very special needs. For the past 13 years, she has taught Carmel Clay students with severe disabilities and currently works with disabled children in first through fifth grades at Woodbrook Elementary. In addition, she volunteers as county coordinator for the Special Olympics of Hamilton County, a role she pursued to help her brother.
“In 1993, my little brother, Sam, who has Downs Syndrome, turned eight years old,” said Heather. “There was not a Special Olympics program in our county, so I started one. We grew quickly from one athlete, Sam, to nearly 1,000 registered athletes and multiple partners today.”
The year round volunteer organization now offers 19 sports. Since athletes do not pay a fee to participate in the Special Olympics, Heather spends most of her time raising money to keep the organization running and admits it’s a challenge. “I love volunteering for the Special Olympics but it does take a lot of time and energy,” said Heather. “Those kids and their dedicated moms and families are amazing. It feels good to inspire and be inspired.”
She credits many who have inspired her, for teaching her compassion, patience and concern for others, molding her into the woman she is today. A very unique and special relationship she had as a teenager in Cicero had a tremendous impact on her.
In 1984, Ryan White, a hemophiliac, became famous when he was banned from middle school in Kokomo after contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion. His mother, Jeanne White, fought for Ryan’s right to attend school thus sparking widespread media attention and a national push for AIDS education. Unwelcome at Kokomo schools, the White family moved to Cicero where Ryan attended Hamilton Heights and befriended Heather McNew. Standing by his side throughout the public debate, as Ryan battled AIDS, along with painful discrimination due to negative public perceptions of the disease, they developed a strong bond.
“I never believed he would lose his battle with AIDS. He had me convinced that he wouldn’t. He lived life to the fullest and never complained. I want to be that person too, and am reminded of his strength often.”
Heather’s friendship with Ryan is featured in a skit as part of “The Power of Children” exhibit at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. “When I can, I try to go to the museum and speak at the exhibit about how Ryan changed my life and what he taught me. Having Ryan for a friend, Sam McNew for a brother, and knowing the amazing students and athletes I serve in my life daily make me a better person,” said Heather. As one of eight children, Heather credits her own mother, Sue McNew, with instilling an ‘attitude is everything’ outlook on life.
This positive perspective helps her cope with her own painful disease, dermatomyositis, a rare condition causing muscle weakness, inflammation and skin rashes. Diagnosed six years ago, medication controls the disorder but the winter chill can cause extreme pain in her joints. “It makes simple activities very difficult and weakens my immune system so I tend to get everything my children and students get.”
Her experiences have definitely helped her become a patient person who takes one day at a time. She hopes to teach her children to always be the best they can be, to live life to the fullest, to not take life for granted, to believe they can do anything they want, and to always want to help others.
“I am super honored to receive this award, but I do know many moms out there that deserve it much more than I do,” said Heather. “They have taught me the true meaning of a smile and taught me compassion, which I think I have always had – they just remind me to have it! They have also taught me that a hug may not fix everything, but it sure makes things feel better.”
“We’ve known each other since high school,” said Derek. “Heather has always been a unique, giving person.”
“I am lucky to be doing what I do. Teaching kids with disabilities is my passion,” said Heather. “Over the years, I have become close to many of my students, some who live in children’s homes and don’t have a ‘family’. I’m a lucky lady to have had the chance to be a ‘mom’ to many children over the years.”