Deborah Stephenson bolted around a parking lot organizing kids who have survived cancer for a trip to Carowinds near Charlotte. Medicines, nurses and a doctor were going along for the adventure. The youths, parents and counselors loaded luggage on two tour buses that stood ready for them just after 7 a.m. Thursday at the Ramada Inn near Ashley Phosphate Road.
Colby Griffiths, 14, of Mount Pleasant said he was treated for thyroid cancer. It was his second trip to Carowinds with Courageous Kidz. He particularly looked forward to "The Afterburner," a roller coaster. "Last year was really fun. I'm excited," he said.
Stephenson triumphantly said she has thrived doing what she loves, despite an ugly split with Camp Happy Days and Special Times, which she founded more than 20 years ago. Camp Happy Days is a nonprofit organization that provides year-round activities for kids with cancer. Its flagship event is a summer camp for children diagnosed with cancer and their siblings.
Stephenson's final days at Camp Happy Days were gloomy. The board forced her from her post in July 2005 after current and former board members accused her of mismanagement of the charity's money and sloppy record-keeping. She denies the allegations.
Stephenson was offered a demotion at Happy Days but left for good after she and the board could not agree on the job's terms. She found out that she was "no longer there" from a story in The Post and Courier, she said Thursday.
The Secretary of State's office investigated Camp Happy Days' finances from 2003 to 2004, a period when Stephenson was director. That department's media relations director, Reneé Daggerhart, said the office is no longer looking into Camp Happy Days' finances from that period.
"It was awful. I can't even tell you how awful it was," Stephenson said. "I wanted to jump off the bridge is what I wanted to do."
Stephenson said that she was approved for unemployment benefits last October when the Employment Security Commission found no wrongdoing on her part during her tenure at Camp Happy Days. She also noted that the Secretary of State approved a charter for Courageous Kidz.
But that's all behind her now as she puts her energies into the new organization, which she founded two years ago to carry on her cause of helping kids who are battling cancer. "They can kick you, but they can't keep you down. This is a mission," she said.
Today, Stephenson is the Courageous Kidz director, a position for which she receives no pay. Fundraisers and volunteers fuel the new organization. She's relied on a network of supporters. "When I've needed somebody, they've been there. I have to give all credit to God," she said.
This weekend, her mission is shepherding 53 kids and 36 volunteers for a three-day trip to Lake Wylie and Carowinds. The $20,000 trip is a way for kids to have a break from cancer, its treatments and the uncertainties of living with it.
As the kids left Thursday from the Ramada Inn, Stephenson, dubbed "The Flash," lived up to her nickname as she raced around the parking lot tending to last-minute details of the trip. "I'm all over the place," she said. She introduced kids and talked excitedly about those who have become counselors to other kids.
The only apparent glitch was that the send-off music didn't happen as planned because of technical problems. "Carowinds or Bust," said a banner hanging on a bus.
Courageous Kidz and its dozens of volunteers help children with a cancer diagnosis and their families live life to the fullest. The group helps to restore normalcy in the lives of families affected by childhood cancer and offers "the magic of hope." The nonprofit, tax-exempt organization says that because of minimal administration expenses, 92 percent of donations go to kids and their families who need help.
"I love what I do," Stephenson said.
Reach Prentiss Findlay at email@example.com or 937-5711.