January 2021 It doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed by all the bickering and negativity that’s out there on social media these days. And so, it was beyond refreshing to see a post from Carmel resident and founder of Sam’s Wish, Heather Stephenson, that encouraged spreading kindness and caring over 21 days in January. What Is Sam’s Wish? The story of Sam’s Wish begins in 1993 when Stephenson started a Special Olympic program so that her brother Sam could participate in sports. They were called the "McNew family delegation." In 1994, they opened the program to more people with disabilities and became Hamilton Heights Special Olympics. The program became Special Olympics Hamilton County in 1999. Stephenson served as the county coordinator as a volunteer until 2012. “I'm one of eight children—I have four older siblings and three younger siblings, and the youngest is my brother Sam,” Stephenson shared. “Sam has Down syndrome. He was born when I was in 6th grade, and he stole everybody's heart pretty quickly. When Sam turned 8, all he wanted to do was participate in sports. I was in college at the time, and I looked into getting him involved in Special Olympics. There wasn’t a program in Hamilton County at the time, so I started one.” Balancing her work/home life as a volunteer, wife, mother and teacher, Stephenson passed over the reigns and refocused her energy on her family and career. Stephenson and her husband, Derek, are raising three children of their own. She teaches kids with severe disabilities in grades K-5 for Carmel Clay Schools. By 2014, Stephenson had come to realize that volunteerism was a big part of who she is and that engaging our youth is a critical part of raising future philanthropists and community volunteers. “I realized that volunteering was something that I need to be doing and is something that I want my kids to be involved in,” Stephenson expressed. “I ended up starting Sam’s Wish, and we became a 501(c)(3) in 2014. Our mission at Sam’s Wish is to help people in their time of need and provide more opportunities for people with disabilities to live happier and healthier lives. It’s become a bigger organization than I ever dreamed.” Sam’s Wish has helped those who need a hand up by funding adapted equipment (communication devices, walkers, wheelchairs, etc.) for people in need, offering healthy eating/cooking classes for adults with disabilities, starting a parents night or day out event for parents of children with disabilities, and the list goes on. Amid the pandemic, the organization has continued to push through and has been finding creative workarounds to continue to help community members. Stephenson and her board of directors remain focused on their short- and long-term goals, which include developing new and educational programs and activities that will be offered at no cost. 21 Days of Kindness and Kindness Camps Stephenson began hosting Kindness Camps back in 2015, which continue to grow in both numbers of participants and popularity throughout the community. “I really wanted to do these camps for my own children to teach them how to live philanthropic lives,” Stephenson said. “We started out doing things with them and their friends, and as more people signed up, I opened up the camps—as of 2016—to anybody that wants to participate. Up until last year, I did about 20 Kindness Camps, and most were during the summer. We would usually meet at the Carmel Clay Public Library or we would rent a 15-passenger van and go all over Hamilton or Marion counties doing things like pick up trash, deliver flowers to and play bingo with seniors, set up free lemonade stands along the Monon , make up care packages for hospital waiting rooms and many more other activities.” As with the rest of the nonprofits, Sam’s Wish had to pivot their activities and goals around the pandemic. “This past summer, changed everything,” Stephenson said. “I did two Kindness Camps over the summer, and we maintained 6 feet of distance while we picked up trash outside or delivered food to a family. Over the holidays, I was racking my brain, trying to think of things we could do, and I decided that since it was going to be 2021, we could start the year with 21 Days of Kindness.” Stephenson posted on Facebook and ended up getting 85 kids signed up for the 21 Days of Kindness campaign. The campaign kicked off Jan. 11 and wraps up on Jan. 31. Each child who registered received a bag of items needed for the various acts of kindness and has been responsible for doing at least one kind act a day. Some of these acts have included giving flower bouquets or bags of candy to people the kids know or to a total stranger, writing encouraging letters to children who are ill in the hospitals, writing to their principals on behalf of their teachers expressing their gratitude and placing pennies—face up—around the community so that whoever finds them might have good luck in 2021. Getting Involved With Sam’s Wish In addition to spreading kindness, Sam’s Wish hopes to develop a youth board of directors by the end of the year to further expand their engagement efforts and to find a volunteer who would be willing to maintain the organization’s website. “I’m hoping to be able to do more Kindness Camps throughout the year,” Stephenson said. “And hope to get out and to help more people and raise more funds so that we continue helping those who need it. I dream big, but I hope to eventually get our own van because we have to rent one every time we do a camp.” Sam’s Wish typically holds two fundraisers every year, but with COVID-19, the organization has been heavily relying on its generous donors and on any grants that it is awarded. If you are interested in learning more about Sam’s Wish or are interested in becoming a donor or volunteer, visit the website at samswish.org. Be sure to follow Sam’s Wish on Facebook and Instagram for updates on upcoming Kindness Camps or other volunteer opportunities.