A wish come true: Organization founded to support athlete with Down Syndrome continues growth


Heather Stephenson had always been close to her younger brother, Sam McNew, who has Down syndrome. She has been so close to her brother that in 1993, she organized a program so he could participate in sports, and it was so successful that six years later it grew to become Special Olympics Hamilton County.

After running the program for 20 years, she passed the baton to a new leader after becoming sick. The illness caused her to take time off from her job as a special education teacher, and being away made her realize how passionate she was about helping others. It drove her to find another way to make an impact.

“I just knew there was a need for bigger things for people with disabilities,” said Stephenson, a Carmel resident. “So, in August 2014, I started putting ideas on paper.”

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From left, Sam McNew, Quincy Stephenson, Heather Stephenson, dog Bogart, Derek Stephenson, Turner Stephenson and Stone Stephenson. (Photo courtesy of Heather Stephenson)

That’s when she founded Sam’s Wish, a nonprofit committed to helping people in need and people with disabilities. Since then, the organization has vastly grown and helped many people.

Sam’s Wish has provided funding for those in need to purchase wheelchairs, communication devices and vans with wheelchair lifts for children with disabilities. It’s helped pay for funerals, augmentative devices to aid with communication and more.

“There will be times when there is something that we find out that we can help with, and then we’ll start saying, ‘Who wants to help with this initiative?’” said Stephenson, a special education teacher at Carmel Clay Schools. “A lot of times it’s just within our budget.”

Lisa Wilson received assistance from Sam’s Wish while employed as a teacher’s aide in Nora and working on her master’s degree. She had left another job as a behavior technician because the teacher’s aide position gave her more time to be at home with her daughter, Yannis, who had become sick and had special needs. The reduced work hours presented financial challenges.

“Occasionally, if I had a light bill that was coming due, I had to choose between getting groceries and the light bill,” Wilson said. “That was the kind of place I was at during that time.”

Wilson initially hesitated to contact Sam’s Wish but reached out after her daughter needed a stroller to help with mobility. Sam’s Wish helped Wilson purchase food and paid the electricity bill when she needed help. At Christmastime, Wilson worried about not being able to get gifts for her children, but Sam’s Wish brought presents to her home.

“I think a lot of times when people are struggling, they think they have to do it by themselves,” Wilson said. “The fact that they were so welcoming and kind really helped me out a lot.”

Wilson was able to complete school and received her master’s degree. Today she is a behavior analyst.

Sam’s Wish has gained support from the local community and sponsors such as the CAIRN Foundation. For additional funding, the organization organizes a barn party fundraiser, which is set for Sept. 30 this year.

Stephenson’s future plans for Sam’s Wish include adding social events and helping more families.

Learn more at SamsWish.org.

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A group of 52 kids attended a one-day kindness camp to help Heather Stephenson celebrate her 50th birthday. (Photo courtesy of Heather Stephenson)

Kindness camps

Some of the Sam’s Wish initiatives are funded through the nonprofit’s kindness camps, which provides opportunities for children to serve those in need while learning the importance of empathy.

Kindness camp tasks include delivering groceries or visiting nursing homes to spend time playing games with the residents or bringing them flowers. In the past the program has helped a family that lost everything in a fire. They were staying at a homeless shelter at the time.

“I’m not going to be able to be the organizer of Sam’s Wish forever,” Stephenson said. “I wanted to teach my kids how to live philanthropic lives and their friends.”

The kindness camps occur in the spring and holiday season and more frequently during the summer.  Last year the camps helped 45 families, delivering thousands of gifts.