Deb Stephens: Volunteer Extraordinaire

09/29/11 by Kathy Chaffin

Deb Stephens

Debbie Stephens, who goes by "Deb," has had a lifelong love for the environment -- a passion passed down early by her parents.

Her mother, a lover of birds, read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – a bestseller exposing the detrimental effects of pesticides, and widely credited as launching the environmental movement – and talked to her about it when she was growing up. "And my dad was a farmer who saw farming as a way of living on the earth and tried to avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides when most of the neighbors were using them," she says.

Stephens moved to Salisbury with her husband, Catawba Provost Rick Stephens, in 2009. Once she met Dr. John Wear, executive director of the Center, and toured the green facility, she was hooked. "I started saying from the first time I went to the Center that I would like to help out in any way I could," she says.

Stephens has subsequently become a regular fixture at the Center, volunteering to help with whatever needs to be done. Her volunteer work has included assisting with data entry on the computer; accompanying Amanda Lanier, the Center's coordinator of programming and operations, on school presentations; and helping with last year's Ugly Bug Ball fundraiser.

When she heard about the Center's plans to hold this summer's "Redesigning Our Future" National Environmental Summit for High School Students, Stephens got on board early. She has worked in early elementary and preschool education as well as with older students, so "any opportunity to work with young people is fun for me," she says.

Stephens was involved with planning and marketing the summit, including calling high schools in Virginia and South Carolina to tell them about the opportunity for rising juniors and seniors. Catawba environmental science students visited schools in North Carolina to talk about the summit.

As registrations began to come in, Stephens started working on spreadsheets compiling information about participants and their interests and handling deposits. She checked to see that students had sent in all their information, coordinated arrival and departure bus and flight times for out-of-state students and helped make arrangements for someone to pick them up and take them back to the bus station/airport.

Anything that needed to be done to prepare for the summit, Stephens was there to help. When the July 20-24 event got under way, she says, "I just tried to be an extra pair of eyes and hands for whatever was needed."

During the summit, she and her husband ate lunch and dinner with the students, professors and Center staff and participated in the evening activities.  "It was the interaction with all the people that I enjoyed the most," Stephens says.

Judging by students' comments, she says the Center's very first summit was a big success. "They said things like how much they enjoyed their focus groups," she says, "and how they were surprised and pleased by the fact that the summit presenters didn't talk down to them.

"In elementary school, they teach you how to recycle and the students just kind of thought it would be more of the same. Instead, it was new, more challenging ideas of what people are doing on the adult level that were presented."

Stephens says students were also pleased that the summit wasn't just aimed at those planning to study environmental science in college, but offered ideas on how they could carry the environmental theme into any field of interest. A participant from California, for example, heard ways that she could weave caring for the environment into her plans for a career in music.

Stephens has already joined the Center staff in planning for the second annual National Environmental Summit for High School Students. "I think we've pretty much decided that it needs to be a day longer," she says.

Another addition Stephens says they've discussed is an off-campus experience such as a field trip with an environmental theme. "This would give them a little better feel for the area and would be a break from the other days," she says.

As much as she loves telling others about the Center for the Environment, Stephens says it's something people really need to experience for themselves. "What we have here is unique," she says. "You have to come and attend a conference, a summit, hear a guest speaker or just be in the Center and with the people that work here and find out what it's really like.

"Words just can't describe it."

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