PIERZ -- It is difficult for many children with physical or developmental disabilities to make friends. They may not be invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. Once they become teen-agers, it can be more difficult finding friends to go to movies or to prom.
But a unique program in Morrison County, started by a compassionate Pierz teen-ager and his mom, is bridging the gap between these children and teens who are willing to step up and become companions to others who may be different than themselves.
The Big Helper Club was started by Simon Stumpf, a junior at Pierz Healy High School, and his mother Lois Merchant-Stumpf.
Lois and her husband Steve Stumpf have three biological children and have adopted four multi-racial children. The seven children range in age from 6 to 19. Some have disabilities that include attention deficit disorder, mental retardation and deafness.
"I always wanted a big family, an interesting variety of family," said Lois.
Simon Stumpf (left) and Stephanie Duschner, both 17, looked over informational packets the two helped put together for the Big Helper Club. Duschner, who went through the first Big Helper Club training seminar March 31, wants to work with children with disabilities as a profession.
Simon noticed how his siblings were struggling to make friends and it bothered him.
"I saw a need in the community and I thought me and my friends were capable of doing this," said Simon.
The Big Helper Club trains teens to become "Big Helpers" for disabled children and teen-agers. Whenever parents need a break or would like a trained teen to spend time with their disabled child, they can call a Big Helper teen. The teens are paid a minimum of $3 an hour.
Although it may seem like a baby-sitting service, Simon said the program is not. The teens are able to earn money for their time, and in the process they develop a connection with another person.
Simon, Lois and Carolyn Ouradnik, a fellow member of the Parent Partnership program, a support group for parents of special needs children, developed curriculum for a 3-hour training session held March 31 in Pierz.
Kelsey Fuhrman, 14, baby-sits her 1-year-old neighbor Jared DeMorett often and has now trained to work with children with disabilities through the Big Helper Club. Jared, the son of Pam and Paul DeMorett, has Cri Du Chat syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.
For three hours, they brought in trained professionals who taught 33 teen-agers in seventh grade and older to become a Big Helper. They had more than 70 teens interested in the program, but had to limit participation. The teens learned sensitivity training, emergency first aid, and role-played in various scenarios that they may become involved with when in public with the child or teen they are helping.
Simon made a videotape in his Pierz Healy Video Club that explains the program and introduces some special children in the community and in his family who could benefit from having a Big Helper.
Stephanie Duschner, 17, signed up to become a Big Helper.
"I've always wanted to work with mentally handicapped children when I get out of high school," said Duschner. "I have a special place in my heart for them. I think they're more fun than so-called normal kids."
Kelsey Fuhrman, 14, has been baby-sitting for almost two years for her neighbor Jared DeMorett, who turns 2 in August.
Jared, the son of Paul and Pam DeMorett of Pierz, has Cri Du Chat syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Kelsey attended the Big Helper Club training program and will continue to take care of Jared.
"I think it's really wonderful," Pam DeMorett said of the Big Helper Club. "I still think of Jared as a baby, but when he gets older it'll be nice for him to have a Big Helper as a peer connection. Someone who, down the road, can take Jared biking or other activities.
"Recently I went to a conference for parents of children with special needs," said DeMorett. "I saw there was a need for the Big Helper Club. Many of their kids just don't have many friends."
Simon, 17, has proven that when he feels strongly about a cause, he stands up for it.
His resume would make most adults' achievements pale in comparison.
He is on the Morrison County Public Health Advisory Board and is involved in Postponing Sexual Involvement, a group where teens talk to eighth-graders about abstinence. He helped start SMARTT, Students for Motivating Adult Responsibility Towards Teens, an alcohol awareness program that educates the public about the legal effects of alcohol.
He has strongly supported the anti-smoking cause. He helped start KICK BUTTS, a local anti-smoking youth organization in Pierz that has received statewide attention, and is involved in the Tobacco Free Future Project. He is on the state executive board for Target Market, a youth-led anti-tobacco industry movement, and helped start the teen cessation program at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls. He lobbied for the no smoking referendum in Little Falls restaurants that was defeated. He writes for a magazine in New Jersey called REBEL, Reaching Everyone By Exposing Lies.
Because of his anti-tobacco achievements last year he won the 2000 Midwest Youth Advocate of the Year award from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids for the 10-state region.
Simon will be in Anaheim, Calif., this week for the national competition for Business Professionals of America. He will be accepting his national Torch award. He is also involved in the National Honor Society, SADD, his area youth group and church, the Pierz Healy Video Club and is a four-year member of the student council. This year he is junior class president.
Because he has multi-racial siblings in his predominately white community, Simon has pushed for racial awareness at his school. He campaigned for the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at his school and Pierz Healy students will have the holiday off next year as a result of his lobbying efforts.
He's also a lifeguard at St. Francis Health and Recreation and works at Target in St. Cloud.
For the past two years Simon has spent time as a friend with a 12-year-old boy with Down syndrome through a Peer Helper program at his school, which matches high school students with younger students in the elementary school. This summer he will spend time as a Big Helper through the Big Helper Club.
Anyone with children with disabilities can obtain a list of Big Helpers in Morrison County by calling the Stumpf family at (320) 468-6032 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of the teens who trained in the program are from Pierz, Little Falls, Royalton and Randall.
Contact the Stumpfs to learn more about starting a Big Helper Club in your community. The next Big Helper Club training session in Morrison County will be held next year.
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