The Good List

Sometimes it’s good to be different.
To grab people’s attention.
To commandeer notice.


We found a handful of 417-landers who stand out for their efforts to make a difference in the lives of others.

These individuals are everywhere, many of them unsung for their service. Through their work, they prove that the unthinkable can be accomplished if they put their minds to it. That changing the world can be as easy or as difficult as you make it. That you can use your time and talents to make a difference.

Our subjects are responsible for the construction of a Miracle League Field, so more kids have the chance to be kids. Another uses art to help people cope with the devastation of Joplin’s May 22 EF-5 tornado. Then there’s the mechanic-turned-minister who helps low-income people obtain free car repairs.

These individuals are diverse, and each one comes with a perception of what making a difference means to him or her. Regardless of what they’re doing, each of these people shows that with a little help from your fellow man, you really can make a difference.  

 

The Artist: Judith Fowler

Two days after Joplin’s devastating EF-5 tornado on May 22, Judith Fowler was pulling out her supplies and getting ready to get to work.

No, she wasn’t reaching for shovels, rakes or hatchets. She was reaching for art supplies.

Fowler is an artist who's professionally trained in her field. A professor at Missouri State University, Fowler teaches drawing, watercolor and art education. She is also the coordinator of the Art Education Program and is a registered art therapist. In light of the disaster, Fowler decided that her skills could be used to help people deal with
the devastation.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just walk in and teach some art therapy,’” says Fowler. She quickly learned, however, that her idea wasn’t as simple as it sounded. “I found that the major disaster relief groups had taken over the city,” says Fowler. “You had to go through a system to even volunteer.”

After consulting with the Red Cross, Fowler was told that it would be helpful if her organization had a name to distinguish it from the crowd. In the past, Fowler had also aided victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita under the name of ART on Wheels, so she decided to simply modify the old name, and ART on Wheels–Missouri was born.

Then there was the question of where to start. Even after volunteers  were  in place to aid Fowler with the therapy, people weren’t exactly knocking down their door. “And so I thought, 'Okay, I’ve got to go out and find the places where parents would be leaving their kids while they’re trying to find a new home,'” says Fowler.

She discovered one of those places to be the Joplin Family YMCA. Fowler and her volunteers saw approximately 170 children in a two-week period and introduced therapeutic art concepts to the children to help them deal with their emotions.

Fowler does both art therapy and therapeutic art, but she says there is a difference between the two. “You know how people just like to doodle or make cute things, and it’s restful? It’s relaxing? That’s therapeutic art,” says Fowler, who also points out that therapeutic art is primarily just for enjoyment.

Art therapy, however, is something different. According to Fowler, art therapy is more about communication. She gives the example of someone using a drawing to show emotions, even when things can’t be expressed verbally. “While you’re drawing, I can ask you what this color means to you,” says Fowler. “The artwork becomes the dialogue.”

In addition to her work at the YMCA, Fowler also spent time working at the Lafayette House. It provides a safe environment for women and children who have been touched by abuse and addiction. And she still works with several patients weekly at the Freeman Mental Health Center.

All of Fowler’s work has cost a lot in time and supplies. However, Fowler points to several donations that have helped ease the financial strain. Those donations have come from sources such as her alumni group at Parkview High School, corporate donors, members of her own family and art therapists from across the state and the nation.

In fact, Fowler got so many donations that she was able to help secure some supplies for other programs as well. “I had enough for the Joplin teachers and three of the Carthage teachers that had a lot of storm victims,” says Fowler.

Fowler has also contributed financially, especially in the beginning when she was getting the program up and running. “When it runs into my pocket, I figure that’s my monetary donation,” says Fowler.

Now more than six months after the tornado whipped through Joplin, local residents have accomplished much toward the town’s recovery. A great deal, however, is still to be done, including the rebuilding of individuals’ mental health. With that in mind, Fowler is still volunteering her time as an art therapist with groups of severely traumatized patients. It’s also where her next project lies.

“The next thing I’d like to do is get some art activity going on in the FEMA trailers,” says Fowler. 

 

The Mechanic: Junior Courtois

Few people are willing to quit a stable job to simply volunteer for a cause that they believe in. Charles L. “Junior” Courtois, however, is an exception to the rule. He left his position as the core buyer and receiver for SRC Electrical (formerly Megavolt) to become the full-time, unpaid director of GearHead Ministries Inc., a Springfield-based non-profit that helps provide car repairs for people without the means to pay for them.

In addition to simply repairing cars, GearHead also takes car donations. Cars that are beyond repair are scrapped out, and the parts are either reused or sold, with the funds used for the ministry. Others are refurbished and given away to families in need. It was one of those car donations that reminded Courtois why he’s doing this ministry. It was the story of a family from Ava that had a child born prematurely. The couple was staying at the Ronald McDonald House, but the child’s father was driving back and forth to Ava every day for work. One day during the commute, the car blew a head gasket. “At that point, he was going to lose his job,” says Courtois. It wasn’t long before Courtois found a car that the ministry fixed up and gave to the couple.

The organization began 12 years ago. In the early days, Courtois and his fellow volunteers were the ones wielding the wrenches. Now, for insurance reasons, they operate through a number of local body shops that discount their products and services. Courtois says there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule regarding whom the ministry aids. Its existence is primarily spread through word-of-mouth, and Courtois says that he is the first contact with many of the people GearHead helps. After  he learns about the need, he works with a shop to see if it’s feasible for the organization to pay for the repairs. GearHead Ministries is completely funded through donations, which is the biggest limiting factor when determining whether or not repairs are feasible.

GearHead is a 501(c)(3) organization; all donations are completely tax-deductible. It also operates under the leadership of a five-person board, of which Courtois is the president. The ministry measures its work in “touches,” or how many times it helps an individual or family per week. It currently averages between three and five. Courtois says he hopes that in the future the ministry will own its own shop and have mechanics employed full-time.

Courtois is very open about his faith and the fact that GearHead Ministries is completely founded in Christian principles. He also, however, points out something else. “We are a 100-percent faith-based organization, and we make no apologies for that,” says Courtois. “But it does not dictate whom we help.” The organization elects for a relaxed approach to the ministry, doing as little as laying a New Testament in the front seat. “They can throw it away when they get down the street if they like,” says Courtois. “But we feel it’s at least our responsibility to put it there.” 

 

The Philanthropists: David, Debra and Rebecca Humphreys

Lifelong Joplin resident David Humphreys NEVER imagined that he’d be pulling people out of homes minutes after an EF-5 tornado swept through his hometown.

But then again, not everything turns out like you expect it to.

David is the president and CEO of TAMKO, a nationwide building supply company that is headquartered in Joplin. On May 22, he was over at his mother’s house when the tornado hit. His wife, Debra, and daughter, Rebecca, were at home.

After the tornado, David set out to check on Debra and Rebecca. However, he didn’t get far before he passed people needing help. David decided to stop and see what he could do. He says he spent the next several hours helping pull people out of the rubble and wrecked homes, and he offered up his Suburban so a colleague could help shuttle people to wherever they needed to go. Late that evening, he made it home without any shoes and with a nail in his foot because he had given away the pair of shoes he was wearing to a man who didn’t have any.

Within two days after the tornado, the couple gave $1 million to the local chapter of the Red Cross, something that received a great deal of attention from the local media.

“We really felt like it was important to do it quickly, and unlike most of our philanthropy, to do it publicly,” says Debra. It was the couple’s hope that the donation would spur other donations.

Not to be outdone by her parents, Rebecca Humphreys tried to volunteer in numerous capacities after the tornado. However, she found it difficult to find a place where a 16-year-old could really do much of consequence. That’s when she decided to do something new. The high-school senior founded A Tree Grows in Joplin to help populate the city’s now-empty landscapes.

“I thought the name was kind of symbolic,” says Rebecca. “It’s really about growing up and moving forward.”
Rebecca found the project garnered virtually instant success, and it blew her goal of 500 trees out of the water.

“Now we’re up to 4,000,” says Rebecca.

In addition to Rebecca’s tree-planting efforts and the family’s gift to the Red Cross, the Humphreys also decided to aid the Salvation Army. Based on her time spent on the board of directors in the past, Debra felt that a check was the best way to help.
“I know from experience that they’ll get a lot of clothes, they’ll get a lot of food, they’ll get a lot of those things,” says Debra. “Some of them are useful and some of them aren’t. But if you give them money, they can allocate their resources the way they need to.”

In the following weeks, the Humphreys also pledged $250,000 for Joplin’s public school system, as well as another $250,000 as a matching grant. They felt that public education was crucial to Joplin’s rebuilding.

In addition to their donations to organizations, the Humphreys found themselves faced with some aftershocks for TAMKO. The company had already faced challenges earlier in the year after its Tusclaoosa plant was affected by a tornado in April. According to David, nearly 30 of the business’s employees lost their homes, and many more lost items such as cars. One of the first things he did after the storm was to figure out exactly which employees were hit. Since insurance money wasn’t going to be available for the foreseeable future, David had the company step in and pick up some of the slack.   

“You know these folks are going to be strapped,” says David. “These are expenses they never expected.”
After figuring out set amounts for losses for things such as homes and vehicles, the company ended up giving out $1.2–1.3 million to employees.

But the family’s efforts don’t just stay in the financial arena. The family currently has three tornado victims living with them and has let another family live in a house they own across town.

The Dependable Mr. Fix-it: Shawn Gott

At various times, Shawn Gott has toyed with the idea of becoming an elementary school teacher.
Right now, however, he’s using his time to make a difference in other ways. The 41-year-old father of three has been volunteering for Springfield’s children and youth for 16 years, currently serving weekly at Isabel’s House and the Ronald McDonald House.

Isabel’s House is a haven of sorts for children age 12 and younger. The reasons children stay at the facility vary, and include things like single parental issues and other less-than-fortunate circumstances, such as unsafe home situations.  
Gott says he’s fortunate that his career in property management allows him the flexibility to volunteer during typical work hours. Right now, he puts in four hours every Tuesday morning at Isabel’s House and finishes the day from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Ronald McDonald House. He also points out, however, that anyone can do it if they make it a priority.  

“Anybody can do three hours,” says Gott. “Just put it in your schedule and do it.”

What he does for these organizations varies depending on the day. Sometimes he’s playing with the kids, doing things such as riding bikes, playing ball, drawing with chalk, and even taking field trips. “That’s very satisfying for me,” says Gott. “I feel like a lot of these kids don’t go a lot of places.”

On other days, however, he’s doing things such as painting, fixing doors, or even repairing the ice machine and other appliances.
Over the years, Gott has learned a thing or two about dealing with kids, beginning with dependability.

“Even though I might not be good at it, I’m there,” says Gott, who points out that simply being there is a huge deal for kids who have little stability in their lives.  

The kids aren’t the only ones who have benefited from Gott’s volunteering. He says he has also gained a great deal from his time spent in the field.

“I learn too, in these situations and places like Isabel’s House, how to be a better parent, because they’re constantly tweaking and looking at themselves,” says Gott.

Through the years, Gott has been careful to not attach his business life with his volunteering. For him, that’s not what it’s about: It’s about making a difference for the kids. That doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t get anything out of it.

“I don’t really know if that’s a calling or what, but I think that’s what I was meant to do,” says Gott.

The Director: Mary Ann Lengyel

In Nicaragua, education is a privilege. It’s not unusual for children to barely finish elementary school, let alone get any further education.

According to Mary Ann Lengyel, a 417-land resident and director of La Esperanza preschool in Nicaragua, preschools are especially rare in that part of the world. There’s also a different attitude toward the role of mothers in early childhood development. Mothers generally don’t view themselves as teachers. “Kids just start school with whatever basic knowledge that they have,” says Lengyel. All those factors combined make Lengyel’s role especially crucial.

Lengyel has been with the preschool for more than nine years. The school works through Project H.O.P.E., a Springfield-based non-profit Christian ministry, and Fellowship Bible Church. When Lengyel first saw slides of the school in church one Sunday morning, she really didn’t anticipate getting quite this involved. She just knew that she had to do something, and she began with a trip to Nicaragua just to see what it was really like.

“That’s all it took, and I was hooked,” says Lengyel, who agreed to assume the position of director after being asked by Project H.O.P.E. director Kim Bradley.

Lengyel’s job as director encompasses various roles, but her main focus is connecting sponsors in the United States with kids in Nicaragua. A $30-per-month sponsorship covers all of a child’s educational expenses, a birthday gift, vitamins, shoes, the staff’s salary, emergency medical expenses, a Christmas present, a uniform and a hot meal every day.

Those things, which sound very basic to a North American way of thinking, are actually very important in the Nicaraguan society. “The preschool is very valuable, and it’s considered a great honor,” says Lengyel. “It’s just a giant stepping stone.”
The preschool has grown since Lengyel took over, and it now has a capacity of 52 students (ages 4 to 5); that number bumps to 66 in January. Two teachers currently work with two classes of students. However, an expansion is currently underway to add a third classroom, playground equipment and a small library. According to Lengyel, the majority of kids come from the village of Monte Oscuro, but others come from out of the woodwork to attend classes. Or, in some cases, literally out of the woods. “No cell phones, but the word just gets out,” says Lengyel.

Even the teachers go the extra mile to make the preschool a success. “One teacher walks about 2 miles to get to school, and one has a bicycle,” says Lengyel. “Think Little House on the Prairie.”

Lengyel says that most of the students participate for both years. At the end of the second year, a graduation ceremony is held for the outgoing students—which is a big deal for the participants. Several of the families wanted to purchase the cap and gown to keep as a memento.

Even after eight years, Lengyel is still surprised by other things that aren’t all that different between cultures. A bilingual team of clinicians interviewed the students’ parents about what they thought their kids were getting out of the preschool. Their answers included typical things such as learning their numbers and letters. But then Lengyel asked what their hopes were for their children’s futures. Many of those answers gave the indication that whatever their child wanted to be, they would be really good at.

“Almost every one of them had a particular career in mind: Engineers, lots of doctors, firemen, teachers,” says Lengyel. “They have hopes and dreams just like every parent for their child.”

She says that providing resources give people a leg up on an opportunity for better education. “Help educate themselves out of poverty,” says Lengyel “That’s the key.”

In addition to the preschool, Lengyel is also involved in other ways. She started a children’s library nearby, which now has more than 2,000 books available for the preschool students.

The newest project she’s been involved with is beginning a gardening program. The program allows the students to learn as well as to have fresh vegetables to eat.

In retrospect, Lengyel says she’s happy about the role she’s been able to play for the preschool, and she hopes to do more in the coming years. “To me, the sky is the limit,” says Lengyel. “I’ve seen the little glimmer of hope that the school has brought to them.”

 

The Ballplayer: Joe Stokes

Joe Stokes spent nearly 40 years swinging the bat for numerous teams, including Springfield–Greene County Park Board and church baseball teams, before he retired from playing baseball several years ago. Even though he’s not on a team, Stokes is still very much in the game. Only now, instead of scoring runs, he’s taking a swing for kids.

Stokes is responsible for bringing a Miracle League Field to Springfield. In case you haven’t heard of the Miracle League, it’s a sporting organization solely dedicated to making it possible for kids with special needs to play baseball.

“I have a real heart for baseball, and when I see a young child that can’t play, it really tears me up,” says Stokes.

Stokes’s inspiration for the Miracle League Field came from a little boy named Noah Henkle. The son of a friend, Noah used to play baseball when he was younger. However, several years ago, Noah was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Eventually the degeneration of his muscular system left him wheelchair-bound and unable to play his favorite sport. At least that’s what Noah and his family thought at the time.

After talking with Noah’s dad, Randy Henkle, Stokes decided that there had to be something out there for kids like Noah. And that’s when a simple internet search for “disabled ball field” showed him the Miracle League Association, as well as a dream.
“A young boy who is wheelchair-bound wants to play baseball again,” Stokes says. “I was determined to make this field a reality.”

After showing the concept to Randy, Stokes began taking the idea to other organizations in town. One of the first stops was the Springfield–Greene County Park board, which quickly got involved in the project. It was decided that the field would be built in Dan Kinney Park, and the park board agreed to administer the programs associated with the field. “Once we got all that laid out, I knew we could get it done,” says Stokes.

Stokes’s next challenge: Securing funding.

Fundraising was a joint effort between Stokes and the Springfield–Greene County Park Board. Stokes used his connections with the Rotary Club of Springfield North—as well as from his job in economic development for City Utilities—to attract sponsors to get the project rolling.

The project had a price tag of $312,000. The park board covered the remaining cost of the field beyond the $276,000 in funds that were raised.

The field isn’t like traditional baseball fields, beginning with the surface. Instead of dirt, it’s rubber. “It’s firm enough that a wheelchair doesn’t make an impression in it but soft enough that it’s not going to be too fast for ball rolling or slippery for a kid with a walker,” says Stokes. He also mentions that it’s completely flat to keep players from tripping.

The surface of the field made up nearly half of the project’s cost, translating into approximately $128,000. But all of it was raised from sponsors throughout the community.

In addition to the surface, there are other things that are different about the Miracle League. To start, the rules and structure of the game are modified.

There’s also the question of who is eligible to participate. According to Stokes, the field is pretty wide open. “There are no restrictions,” says Stokes. “If you have a child or young adult that cannot participate in the normal baseball program—whether it be autism, Down syndrome, a health issue, muscular issue—then they can participate here.” Blind children are invited to play too, with a ball specially designed for them.

All of the children have a buddy to help them while they’re on the field. “If it’s pushing the wheelchair, if it’s picking the ball up, if it’s handing him the bat,” says Stokes. “Whatever it is, the buddy is there to help that child with whatever he needs.”
Some might wonder why Stokes would put out the time and effort to see the field through to completion. “We had a need for this in our community, and I guess I was determined to try and fill that need,” says Stokes.

Now completed, the field was christened back in October when a pre-season league took the field for the first time. The regular season kicks off in 2012. And when that time comes around, Stokes says he knows exactly what he’ll be doing.

“I’ll be the cheerleader,” says Stokes. 

 

Kids Who Inspire Us

Olivia Gammill

Many kids love dogs. Far fewer, however, organize fundraisers and events to make those canines’ lives better. Olivia Gammill is one of those exceptions.

Gammill is a sixth-grader in Nixa at Summit Intermediate. Over the past three years, she has worked to organize an annual 1-mile walk for dog owners and their canine companions, with all of the funds going to the CARE Animal Shelter. “I thought that the animals there needed more help, and they needed more money,” says Gammill. “So I thought that I could have a dog walk to raise money.”

In addition to her work with the run, Gammill stays busy all year long. She is the founder of the Kids CARE club at her school, which meets weekly for its members to discuss fundraising ideas and work on preparations for upcoming projects. “We come up with as many fundraisers as we can to raise money throughout the school year,” says Gammill. The club has organized car washes, dog food drives and Animalgrams for Valentine’s Day (for a quarter, kids could send a Valentine to a friend during the school day). “People drew them or printed them from the internet,” says Gammill. “Then, during lunch, people could buy one and then they would send it to their friends.”

Gammill stays pretty busy even when she’s not organizing fundraisers. She’s a trumpet player in the school band, is on the swim team and spends time with her own pets, Rusty the dog and Snickers the guinea pig. She also volunteers weekly at the CARE Animal Shelter, which she’s been doing since she was 9 years old. “We clean out the cages, and we walk the dogs, and we feed the dogs,” she says.

As for the future, Gammill’s already thinking ahead. She’d like to have a 5K at next year’s dog walk to get more people involved. And long-term? It’s no surprise that she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. 

Michael Gibson

All it took was a horrible case of water contamination to convince Michael Gibson that he needed to do something to help provide clean drinking water for those who don’t have it.

Gibson is a senior at Branson High School. Four years ago, he traveled to Ethiopia with his family to meet and take home Zoie, a baby the family was adopting.

“You see images in National Geographic, but nothing compares to actually looking at it in real life,” says Gibson. “I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock I had.”

While they were there, Gibson was selected to participate in a traditional coffee ceremony. Despite the unsafe water used to make the coffee, Gibson felt he couldn’t refuse.

“It’s a huge sacred thing to them,” says Gibson. “When you’re asked to do a coffee ceremony, you can’t refuse or it’s really disrespectful.”

Gibson ultimately paid for his compliance: Later that night, he became more sick than he had been in his entire life and ultimately lost 25 pounds in five days as a result. “At one point, I was so sick that I couldn’t get up off of my hotel bed,” says Gibson.

After seeing a photograph of a young girl drinking similar water, the memory convinced Gibson that these people needed help.

“I kind of had an ah-ha moment,” says Gibson. “I just knew something had to happen.”

In the early stages, Gibson took it slow. He suggested the students at Branson High School could raise money to help build a well, and April Fiesler, one of the teachers, agreed to work on raising money with him. Other students quickly became involved, and by the end of the 2010-2011 academic year, the group’s $10,000 goal was met. It provided one distribution point for clean water for an Ethiopian village called Chuko.

After visiting Ethiopia this summer, Gibson decided that more needed to be done. That’s why the group upped their goal to $60,000. By October, they had already raised $20,000.

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