Epworth honorees David and Thelma Steward are major supporters of the United Way and Epworth Children & Family Services. Photo by Jason Mueller

Founded during the Civil War, Epworth Children & Family Services was formed by a group of United Methodist women to shelter children tragically left orphans by the conflict. In its 140 years, the organization has grown from an exclusively residential agency to one with a dozen different outreach programs serving more than 500 youths each day.

“We believe in the innate strength, goodness and worth of every child, and our task is to help children find those innate gifts, bring them into the open and use them to be successful and happy,” says associate executive director Michael Meehan. He recalls one youth who came to Epworth after his adoptive mother was accused of physical abuse. She gave him up in court, and after he arrived at Epworth, a medical condition and birth defects impacted his intellectual functioning.

“He had struggled in school, and the paper trail suggested that he wasn‘t ever going to be able to live outside an institution,” Meehan says. Despite some medical close calls, after two years of focused interaction with staff, the youngster moved into his own apartment in a transitional living program, was taking mass transit to work and was attending school. “This was a kid with about 40 strikes against him. He proved us wrong,” Meehan says.

Epworth is in the business of proving people wrong. “The staff finds ways to love kids that aren‘t always so easy to love,” says volunteer Beth McCurdy. “It‘s too bad that society creates a need for a place like Epworth, but thank God it‘s there, because it helps kids get their lives on track, and helps them learn to live on their own and be productive citizens,” she says. As a member of Friends of Epworth, McCurdy helps raise funds to pay for things parents would normally underwrite: music lessons, tennis shoes for basketball and a prom that takes place at Epworth.

McCurdy is co-chairing the Friends of Epworth‘s Pillar of Strength award dinner and auction April 12, along with Terese Labovitz. Labovitz explains that the event recognizes someone in the community who is a champion of disadvantaged children, and who exemplifies the same passion as Epworth. This year‘s honorees are Epworth supporters Thelma and David Steward. David Steward owns locally based World Wide Technology Inc.

“Any time you have the next generation challenged with finding their way, we as parents need to bring them hope and get them motivated and excited about their future, because they are our future as well,” he says. “It‘s kind of what happened to me. If there hadn‘t been someone looking out on my behalf and making resources available to me that my biological parents did not, then I wouldn‘t be in the position I‘m in today. No one does anything alone. We want to make sure these kids are not alone.”

Steward adds that a helping hand doesn‘t end with childhood, either. “When I came to St Louis after college, I didn‘t have a job. I didn‘t know anybody, didn‘t have access,” he recalls. “The Urban League gave me some coaching and helped reshape my resume, which allowed me to get my first job with Boy Scouts of America. My wife feels the same way. She‘s a registered nurse, but her family could ill afford a nursing program. There were people in the community who stepped up to supplement her finances so she could go,” relates Steward. “We can‘t give back to the people who gave to us, but we can give forward.”