Helping the Disabled Achieve Rewarding Lives

Helping the Disabled Achieve Rewarding Lives

By Ralph Cohen, special contributor
reading braille

There is nothing like some setbacks to give you a new perspective on life. For Marty '92 and Jill '96 Stedem, it was a pair of setbacks: the loss of their dream to build their own farm soon after they were married in the mid-1980s, and the birth of their severely handicapped daughter, Ashley, around the same time.

A couple that was newly married, broke and with more responsibilities than they had ever bargained for might have resigned themselves to failure. But the Stedems saw it as a life lesson.

“After Ashley came along, we realized more than ever the importance of a college education and that we’d have to provide more for her as she continued to get older and needed more than an average person,” Jill Stedem says. “So we chose to go back to school to get our degrees.”

It wasn’t easy. First Marty studied full-time, attending evening classes while he worked 50-60 hours per week at a farm equipment dealership. After he had earned a bachelor's degree in business administration after four years, Jill too went back to Columbia College. She also continued to work full-time, for a non-profit organization, while she pursued her degree.

Their hard work paid off. Marty embarked on a successful sales and marketing career, and Jill, who also earned her bachelor's degree in business administration in four years, now works for the City of Columbia.

The Stedem family
However, they are even prouder of Ashley’s accomplishments. Their daughter was born with cerebral palsy and utilizes an electric wheelchair. She has limited use of her right hand and legs, and has severe learning disabilities. But at 22, she is living independently at a special assisted housing facility in Columbia, Mo. Her salary – from a community services workshop for local businesses – along with state and federal financial aid, enables her to earn her keep.

The Stedems’ experience with Ashley opened their eyes to the needs of students with disabilities.

“We received a lot of help in the form of financial grants and assistance when we were going to school,” Marty notes. “And we wanted to provide payback.”

Working with Missy Montgomery, major gifts officer at Columbia College, the Stedems recently contributed $10,000 to endow a financial grant for physically challenged students. They hope that in coming years other patrons will add to their original endowment.

“We learned of one young lady going to school who was one of Columbia College’s first blind students,” Jill said (Dacia Luck '08). “And hearing what she went through and the assistance that she needed, we knew that setting up this kind of scholarship would help with non-traditional expenses – expenses such as audio books, or someone to go to class with them and take notes.”

“I'm thrilled to be an inspiration for this scholarship,” Luck said. “I feel that everyone, whatever their physical status, should be able to go and get the same fine education I got at Columbia College.”

Currently, the Stedem Family Endowment awards a $500 grant every year, the first of which was awarded last spring. The recipient is Joe Brown, a student with cerebral palsy pursuing an associate degree, who uses a wheelchair and is assisted by a guide dog. Brown is determined to rise above his disability to become a photographer.

The Stedems are still a little modest about the use of their name in the title of the endowment– “We don’t want the recognition” – but are not shy about advancing the rights of the handicapped.

“People with disabilities have to advocate for themselves,” Marty observes. “They need to get out in society and find people who can assist them.” Marty also realizes that assistance and schooling needs to be focused on giving disabled people the access to community and business leaders that can help them excel.

He adds that it is “disappointing” how few businesses employ the physically challenged.

“They are missing out on some wonderful resources. People with disabilities have special strengths based on what they’ve had to overcome.” This should be viewed as a positive in the world.

If anyone doubts it, look at Ashley’s accomplishments, as well as those of the students qualified to benefit from the Stedem endowment.

To learn more or to contribute to the Stedem Family Endowment, contact Missy Montgomery, major gifts officer, at (573) 875-7576 or