Ever since a stint as a graduate assistant coaching wheelchair sports gave him a sense of fulfillment unlike any other, Steve Thompson has made it his personal goal to help others, especially those with disabilities or who don’t have the resources many of us take for granted. Through his 25-year career at Easter Seals, he’s watched many children and adults with disabilities or life-threatening diseases hurdle seemingly unbeatable obstacles and reach their full potential. He plans to continue working in the not-for-profit sector for many more years to come.

Thompson and his wife, Morene, recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and have enjoyed parenting 18 children, many of whom they’ve provided a chance for a better life by adopting into their family. Some of their adopted children are from the Peoria area, while others hail from southern Brazil. “Adoption is close to the heart of our family,” said Thompson. “We’ve been especially encouraged in recent years to witness a growing number of families opening their hearts and homes to abandoned and orphaned children through the miracle of adoption. For us, it’s a poignant reminder that we, too, have been adopted into God’s family.”

The Thompsons live in an old rural Tremont farmhouse they’ve been updating for the last 20 years, and were recently recognized by Congress for their remarkable generosity as an Angel in Adoption family.

Tell about your background, schools attended, etc.

I grew up in Grandview, Mo. (a south suburb of Kansas City) and attended Grandview High School. After finishing my master’s degree at the University of Illinois (U of I) in Urbana-Champaign, I began my Easter Seals career in Peoria in 1981 and was named President and CEO in 1986. I’ve been privileged to work for this remarkable organization for 25 years. For more than 85 years, Easter Seals has been providing exceptional services to children and adults with disabilities and their families right here in central Illinois. In addition to having the opportunity to work with an outstanding staff, board of directors, and literally thousands of volunteers, I’ve been blessed to see hundreds of children overcome what are so often believed to be insurmountable obstacles. The successes of those we serve are what we live for at Easter Seals.

My wife Morene and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary on May 24. We have 18 children: four biological and 14 by adoption. In addition to local area adoptions, we’ve adopted two sibling groups of five from southern Brazil.

Most recently, our family was selected as one of the Angels in Adoption by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). Our selecting member of Congress was Congressman Ray LaHood. A press conference and gala awards ceremony honoring the 2006 Angels in Adoption will be held in Washington, D.C., on September 20. The Angels in Adoption Program is designed to raise public awareness about the thousands of foster children in this country and the millions of children around the world in need of permanent, loving homes. The gala provides an opportunity for members of Congress to commend their constituents who’ve enriched the lives of children through their advocacy of adoption and foster care.

Tell about your career path leading up to Easter Seals and becoming President and CEO.

As a graduate assistant at the U of I, I was privileged to have the opportunity to be an assistant coach for wheelchair sports. In addition to coaching some wonderful collegiate athletes, I pursued a field of study aimed at helping to ensure that people with disabilities had equal opportunities to participate fully in the life of their community, particularly in the areas of sports and recreation. In the late 1970s the university’s Office of Recreation and Park Resources was commissioned by Easter Seals in Peoria to conduct a needs assessment and feasibility study regarding the provision of community-based recreation activities for people with disabilities. This study and its findings suggested that Easter Seals could play a key role in advancing community-based recreation services for people with disabilities. Easter Seals accepted the challenge and hired me in January of 1981 to lead this new initiative. Working cooperatively with a number of agencies and organizations, Easter Seals was successful in increasing the number and variety of recreational opportunities for people with disabilities of all ages in and around Peoria. I spent a few months in early 1986 working for Easter Seals National Headquarters in Chicago, and in March of that same year was named to my current position. In January of this year, I celebrated 25 years with Easter Seals.

Tell about the programs and services of Easter Seals.

Since its earliest beginnings in Peoria in 1919 as the “Crippled Children’s Clinic,” Easter Seals has been helping children with disabilities do extraordinary things like walk, talk, and reach their fullest potential. For more than 85 years, Easter Seals has specialized in the provision of exceptional therapy, clinical, and family support services for very young children and their families. In addition to its state-of-the-art service center in Peoria, Easter Seals is rapidly outgrowing its current service center in Bloomington-Normal.

Easter Seals is also widely recognized as a leader in providing residential camping and outdoor education experiences for children and adults with disabilities in Illinois. This summer, more than 1,700 children and adults with disabilities attended Easter Seals’ Timber Pointe Outdoor Center located on Lake Bloomington in Hudson.

How is Easter Seals supported financially?

Easter Seals is a fee-for-service agency. As such, it bills and collects payments from insurance companies as well as from the State of Illinois, including Public Aid. Nearly 60 percent of Easter Seals’ annual operating revenue is derived from these sources; state and federal grants comprise less than 10 percent of the annual operating budget. However, rates of reimbursement for the specialized services we provide are often below the actual cost of providing them.

Many times, families in need of services don’t have insurance or have limited insurance coverage. Subsequently, Easter Seals offers financial assistance to families, including a sliding-fee scale and scholarship assistance. An important part of our mission is the commitment to ensuring no one is ever denied services due to an inability to pay. As a result, Easter Seals relies on generous gifts from individuals, corporations, and organizations to further its mission. Last year, these gifts made up nearly 30 percent of Easter Seals’ annual operating budget, which allows us to do the right thing vs. just doing the funded thing.

A wide variety of year-round, volunteer-driven fundraising efforts help ensure that high-quality programs and services are available to those in need right here in our communities. For nearly 30 years, the Easter Seals Telethon has helped to herald the coming of spring and the renewed promise of help and hope for children with disabilities. This year, the telethon signed off the air with a record-breaking total of $1,812,726, a 17 percent increase over last year.

How are families referred to Easter Seals?

Often families are referred to Easter Seals by their family physician or pediatrician. Children from birth to three years of age are commonly referred through the local Child & Family Connections office, an arm of the Illinois Department of Human Services.

However, families with children from birth to three who are concerned or who simply have questions about their child’s development can call Easter Seals to schedule a free screening—no physician referral is necessary. Frequently, these screenings reassure parents that their child is developing at age-appropriate levels. In the event that a screening determines there’s a developmental delay or possible disability, the family can schedule a diagnostic evaluation. Should therapy or other services be deemed appropriate, they’re readily available from Easter Seals’ highly trained and specialized pediatric therapy staff.

It’s important to note that Easter Seals offers services to children with a wide variety of disabilities. We treat a number of neurological, genetic, and cognitive conditions in addition to cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, mental retardation, spina bifida, epilepsy, and other disabilities and developmental delays.

What is the age range of those served by Easter Seals?

More than 80 percent of those served by Easter Seals are under 18 years of age and the majority of those are from birth to age three. This specialized focus on young children naturally includes family members and caregivers.

Easter Seals’ Timber Pointe Outdoor Center is largely child centered as well, but it requires campers to be at least seven years old before enrolling in a week-long residential camping session. Many adults also take advantage of Timber Pointe.

What motivated you to become involved in nonprofits?

Early in my career, I made a conscious decision to pursue a mission-driven life. I found great gratification in helping other people, particularly those who faced significant obstacles in life. I saw the not-for-profit sector as a logical place to attain this goal and I’ve never regretted my decision.

What also attracted me to the not-for-profit sector was the transformational role that philanthropy plays in our nation and in our communities. When you really stop to think about it, each one of us—somewhere, sometime in our life—was the recipient of philanthropy. Someone believed in us, taught us, protected us, supported us, mentored us, befriended us, and perhaps for reasons still unknown to us, simply loved us. We’re who we are today in large measure because of them. Down deep, I believe each one of us wants to play that role in the life of someone else. When we go beyond our own success and do something truly significant in the lives of others, it makes us better. Each day at Easter Seals, philanthropy allows us to do the best we can for those we serve.  

To what do you attribute the tremendous success and growth of Easter Seals in central Illinois?

We continue to advance our mission, programs, and services in response to growing community needs thanks to the unique partnership among our outstanding professional staff and the extensive network of committed volunteers and generous donors. At the top of this extraordinary network of volunteers is the Easter Seals board of directors. This remarkable group of key business and community leaders not only brings vision and passion to the Easter Seals mission, but also provides an incredible array of skills, talents, and expertise. Though I could be biased, I believe the Easter Seals staff is among the finest anywhere. Their compassion and commitment to excellence propels their enthusiastic pursuit of our mission to provide exceptional services, to ensure that all people with disabilities or special needs and their families have equal opportunities to live, learn, work, and play in their communities.

None of this would be possible without the thousands of donors who are valued members of the Easter Seals family. In concert, we all work together for the families we serve, their challenges, their successes, and their shared stories. It’s an inspiring environment for all of us who are privileged to take part.

What would people be most surprised to find out about Easter Seals?

•    Locally, 99 cents of every Easter Seals dollar stays right here in central Illinois.
•    For 25 years, the National Health Council has ranked Easter Seals No. 1 among its member agencies for the highest percentage of program support dollars spent on direct services.
•    The first National Easter “Seals” campaign was conducted in 1934. These little stamps with lily images have brightened the lives of generations of Americans and have been produced and distributed annually since 1934. They were first distributed here in Peoria in 1936 and “sold” for a penny each. We house a complete collection of original Easter Seals from 1934 to 2006 in Peoria. For many years, these seals were produced in Peoria by Fleming Packaging.
•    Locally, Easter Seals is the largest provider of specialized and inclusive residential camping and outdoor education programs for people with disabilities in Illinois. Collaborating with an array of statewide disability organizations—including Muscular Dystrophy Association, Illinois Spina Bifida Association, Brain Injury Association of Illinois, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Camp COCO for kids with cancer and other diseases—more than 1,700 children and adults with disabilities are expected to attend Easter Seals’ Timber Pointe Outdoor Center this summer.
•    Nationally, Easter Seals is the 13th-largest nonprofit and the second-largest voluntary health organization in the U.S. (Source: Non-Profit Times, Nov. 1, 2005).
•    Across the nation, Easter Seals is recognized as a heritage brand enjoying almost 100-percent name and logo identification. Forbes magazine ranked it a “Top 100 Global Brand,” valued at $5.1 billion dollars. This places Easter Seals’ brand value between Coach at $3.9 billion and Google at $8.7 billion (Source: Vivaldi Partners, Forbes magazine, June 2005).  [Now if we could just convert that brand value to cash…]

Tell about all the additions to your family.

The last of our four biological children was born in 1990. In 1994, we adopted two brothers. Little more than a year later, we adopted two sisters. Then in 1997, we believed God was calling us to adopt again. We didn’t know when, we didn’t know who, and we certainly didn’t know how many. One thing we did know—our old farmhouse in rural Tremont would have to be enlarged if the Thompson family was going to continue to grow. Stepping out in faith, we added 2,000 square feet to our home. Soon after, in July 2001 our family departed for South America, where we spent 40 days completing an inter-country adoption of a family of four sisters and a brother, who ranged in age from 6 to 11, from an orphanage in southern Brazil. Most recently, in November of last year, we traveled once again to southern Brazil and returned home just in time for Christmas with a family of three sisters and two brothers, ranging in age from 3 to 13.   

How did you and your family communicate with your non-English-speaking children?  

All of our children from Brazil came home with Portuguese as their primary language. The speed at which the children have grasped the English language is rivaled only by my repeated and pathetic attempts at Portuguese. Several of my children have now politely asked me to stop speaking Portuguese, while several others just laugh out loud. The language barrier is never as frustrating as it is comical, particularly when the children blend both languages into their communication. As a family, we’ve enjoyed adopting some Portuguese words for everyday use that are more descriptive and just more fun than their English counterparts.

With a busy career and a large family, how do you balance such a demanding schedule?

First of all, none of this would be possible without my amazing wife. Often, because of our large family, we’re asked this question. In my experience, however, it seems most all of us struggle with the issue of maintaining a balanced and healthy life. In a 24/7 world, it seems as if nearly everyone is overloaded, overextended, and otherwise overwhelmed. For me, I prepare an annual written personal growth plan. This helps me be accountable to specific measurable goals that I have in eight to 10 different spheres of my life. As a family, we’re intentional about meal times. On average, we eat dinner together four to five times each week. This is a great time to slow down and connect with those who are most important in my life. Bedtimes are an important time, too. And we consider Sunday a gift—this is a day we escape from the tyranny of the urgent and overloaded schedule of the previous week, and prepare for the one yet to come. I remind myself often that the true proving ground of leadership is in the home.

What’s surprised you the most about parenting such a large and diverse family?

I suppose my own heart. Honestly, before any of our adopted children came home, I secretly wondered if I would somehow love my adopted children less than my biological children, if only in a small way. To my surprise, that’s never been the case. My wife and I often comment that we don’t think of our children as either biological or “by adoption,” and sometimes find even thinking of them in those terms to be strained or awkward. Even with our most recent adoptions having been completed just six months ago, it seems as though each one’s always been part of our family. I can scarcely imagine life without any of them.

Do you have advice for others considering adoption?

Recently, we’ve witnessed a growing number of families opening their hearts and homes to abandoned and orphaned children through the miracle of adoption. We always encourage families to be thoughtful and to do their homework, but ultimately, the decision to adopt is one that must be made with the heart. Once the decision to go forward has been made, brace yourself for the magnitude of paperwork that follows and be diligent in completing it. Along the way, be prepared to encounter two groups of people: those who’ll come alongside to support and encourage you, and those who’ll oppose you. Don’t be surprised by who’s in one group or the other.

What are your future plans for Easter Seals?

Easter Seals just completed the initial phase of a five-year strategic plan. This plan envisions a bold, exciting, and compelling future for Easter Seals and those it’s been called to serve. Key initiatives in the plan include the creation of an Easter Seals Autism Center for Excellence and an Easter Seals Cerebral Palsy Center for Excellence. Both will require extensive interagency collaborative relationships. In addition to the provision and wide-scale coordination of comprehensive autism and cerebral palsy services, Easter Seals hopes to establish a significant research component within each.

Easter Seals’ Timber Pointe Outdoor Center is nearing completion of a new $2.3 million lodge that will greatly enhance dining hall capacity, upgrade onsite medical facilities, and provide a much-needed accessible storm shelter. A long-range site use and facilities plan will ensure that Timber Pointe’s future growth will be controlled, serving even more children and adults with disabilities and their families, while maintaining the beauty and wonder of the natural environment.

A bold vision of building the Easter Seals Endowment Fund is designed to ensure the growing needs of children and adults with disabilities and their families are met well into the future. 

What would you like our readers to know that hasn’t been asked?

I’m an ordained lay minister at Northfield Christian Church in Tremont. Thus far, I’ve had the privilege of baptizing six of my children and officiating the marriages of my oldest daughter and my oldest son. In September, I’m also officiating the wedding of my second-oldest daughter. Most importantly, I’d like readers to know it’s my beautiful wife of 25 years who’s truly the leadership and management genius behind the success of our large and busy household. She’s a remarkable woman in every way.   IBI