Stephens Family YMCA / Larkin's Place
Jeanene and I have always had a special place in our heart for families affected by disability. It started early, when Rick’s sister learned she had MS when she was 17, and her life was dominated by a slow decline in physical ability until she died at 35. Our daughters went to Carrie Busey Grade School, where, at that time, all the children in our district who had disabilities attended. Our girls learned to play with kids with disabilities as if there were no difference. And, as I wrote about in my book, In Plane Sight, our best friends from college had a daughter with Down syndrome, Marnie, who had a major influence on us as she developed into a wonderful young woman. In 2006, we played in our first Aspen Challenge Charity event to help “make possibilities for those with disabilities,” and it became an annual event for us.
We had no inkling of how these experiences would be used for God’s glory in the future. But one day Amy Armstrong came to us with a plan for a recreation facility for people with disabilities. As the mother of a child (Larkin) born with Down syndrome, Amy became involved with other families affected by disability and learned that there wasn’t really a “place” in our community for her daughter as she grew up. Her idea for Larkins’ Place began to take shape.
Three days before we were to meet with Amy, we attended the wedding of our good friend Marnie, by then a mostly independent 25-year-old. What struck us most about the beautiful events of that day was the reception.
Marnie and her husband, David, sat at a large round table of 18 for the wedding party and friends. Everyone at the head table had a disability of some kind. Surrounding this large
table were 10 rounds of eight people, each consisting of doctors, lawyers, professors, businesspeople, counselors—all the people that were (in other circumstances) more likely to be at “the place of honor.” But this day, they all were on the outside.
Every person at the head table gave a toast. These weren’t maybe the most sophisticated toasts I’d ever heard, but they were the most heartfelt and touching. It was beautiful. And it dawned on us: this is what it will look like in heaven! God says, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” It was like seeing a glimpse of heaven.
With that thought fresh in our minds, we met with Amy to discuss how we might help build a rec center for people with disabilities. We had to say yes. The timing wasn’t by accident. It was an amazing demonstration of how God works in our lives, preparing us well, and then giving us the chance to join in His work.
Since a key feature of LP would be warm water therapy, we quickly surmised we needed a partner. An indoor water facility is very expensive to build and operate, and a therapy pool would need to be used continuously to make it cost effective. We decided the local YMCA was the best partner for LP.
The Y’s mission is “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” That was perfect, because we wanted LP to show the love of God, to build healthy spirit, mind, and body, and we wanted to do it FOR ALL—those with disabilities and those without. However, our local YMCA was struggling. It was housed in an old repurposed mansion that was beginning to crumble and never designed for a Y in the first place. It would become a much larger project, but connecting the YMCA with Larkin’s Place would do far more for our community than a stand-alone.
LP quickly became a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) that most thought impossible, but we went to work on a new YMCA with LP woven throughout. We hired the best consultants, wrote the business plan, developed an exciting architectural design, and got a whiff that Mark Johnson, the premier head wrestling coach in the Big 10, might be interested in leaving coaching to become our CEO, another amazing miracle!
So, we had the vision, business plan, and leader. Now all we needed was the money—$18 million to be exact—more than had ever been raised before in our community for something like this. And, oh yeah, in the midst of the Great Recession (God has a sense of humor). We believe the recession was just to make sure everyone knew; it wasn’t by our power and connections this would happen.
The project became an amazing “team” experience. Amy and the YMCA staff focused on how the building would function for people of all abilities. They made sure we had the right color palette that was calming for children with autism, and sensory rooms for special needs. And we couldn’t have a slide into the family pool if it wasn’t going to be available to children and adults who couldn’t walk up the steps. So Jean Driscol (star Boston Marathon, Paralympic athlete, and Y board member) and Amy came up with a simple solution: move the slide so the elevator could be used to get to the top of the waterslide. We may have the only waterslide in America accessible by people with a disability.
Raising the money for the Y/LP during the Great Recession was nothing short of a miracle. Advisors suggested we should wait till the economy improved, but the Board believed if God was in it, anything was possible. The $18 million was committed and the new Y/LP opened in 2012, exactly four years from our first meeting with Amy about LP.
As the project was nearing completion, it was time to name the Y/LP. Jeanene and I wanted the Y to have a soft name that would carry a story with it, but we didn’t want it to be our name. It was hard enough for us to make our gift public. We kept hoping that someone would come along and give enough for the naming privilege. It didn’t happen. In the end, we agreed to name the Y the Stephens Family YMCA.
We’re glad to have been given the honor of helping with this project. We hope that when others see the name, they won’t think of us, but they’ll know that it’s God’s story, not ours.