Although Columbia may be considered a small town by many, it has no shortage of people bettering the community. There are far more than 10 people making a difference in Columbia, but we chose to include the following ones because they are what one might call unsung heroes. They make a huge difference in people’s lives, but often are not recognized for all their hard work.
From aiding refugees to sheltering children to supporting people recently released from prison, the 10 people in this article are shaping our community and making it a safer and more positive place to live. Here’s to celebrating their passion and commitment.
Pamela Ingram co-founded Granny’s House, along with a committee, more than 18 years ago. Her mission was to create a nurturing place for public housing children to gather after school, where they could receive help with homework, gain invaluable life skills and experience love and grace. “We love walking through life with kids and seeing beautiful transformations,” Ingram says. As the current executive director, her days could involve anything from training volunteers to speaking at meetings to cleaning bathroom floors.
For Ingram, some of the best moments are when kids who spent time in Granny’s House share how much that experience meant to them. “One African girl whom I’ve known for more than a decade recently said, ‘I actually cannot remember when Granny’s House was not a part of my life and I cannot even imagine what life would be like without it,’ Ingram says. “She came to us from Rwanda as a fifth grader who spoke no English and is now a senior in college! To me, investing in the life of a child is like putting $10 in the bank with the possibility of withdrawing $1 million later!” she says.
Granny’s House began as two public housing apartments when it was first founded but now has a permanent location at 110 E. Worley Street. It is lovingly referred to as the “Taj Mahal” by those who volunteer their time there.
Coyote Hill Children’s Home
Larry McDaniel has been changing children’s lives in Columbia even before founding Coyote Hill Children’s Home 29 years ago. In the 1980s, McDaniel first became a foster parent and his passion for taking children under his wing evolved from there.
“When I do something by myself, I feel like I have simply completed a task” McDaniel says. “But when I get to be a part of a community effort, even if it is just a small group, I get to feel like I’ve been a part of something much bigger than myself — and that feels good to all of us. Since we work directly with children, there are innumerable positive reactions,” he says, “but I want to highlight the positive reactions from others in the community who are invited to come alongside us in this endeavor. People want to make a difference, so being given an opportunity to do so is very appreciated.
“Every person can be a player, every player has a part and every part is an important one,” McDaniel says. “Don’t think you have to single-handedly reconfigure the community landscape to be significant. Simply do for one what you wish you could do for everyone and you will be significant.”
McDaniel continues to better children’s lives because he believes in the power of community. “Whether as one working with the community as a profession or volunteering on a regular basis, participating in helping to make a difference in one’s community has enormous returns on investment of the time and resources spent doing so,” he says. “I have never believed we are on this Earth to live for ourselves. We are here to have relationships and as the saying goes, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’”
Mary Jo Henry
Boys and Girls Club and MU Children’s Hospital
When asked how long she has been volunteering in the local community, Mary Jo Henry simply says “a long time.” Her current volunteer work as a member on the boards of the Boys and Girls Club of Columbia and MU’s Children’s Hospital doesn’t begin to chip away at the difference she has made in our community. She credits her generous spirit to her parents. “It was not uncommon to see my dad get the tractor out in a snowstorm to pull a stranded driver out of a ditch, and mother was always baking something to take to a funeral dinner at the church.”
Henry’s passion for volunteering actually led to her career at BMW and Mercedes-Benz of Columbia. “Back in the early 1990’s, I had borrowed two vans for the March of Dimes walk from the local Ford dealership to transport walkers if they needed assistance to the end of the walk,” she says. “Upon contacting the dealer to ensure he found the vans in perfect condition, he proceeded to offer me a position at the dealership, which started a wonderful 26-plus year career in the automotive industry.”
According to Henry, volunteering has many faces. It can range from being a structured board member to a random act of kindness. “No matter the way you decide to serve, just be prepared to receive so much more back!” she says. For community members looking to become more involved, she suggests volunteering with Boys and Girls Club, helping True North with projects or fundraising events and donating blood to The Red Cross. “Big Brothers Big Sisters has a school-based program through which volunteers can take a lunch hour once a week to work with a young person,” she says.
Her personal experience as a Big Sister still leaves a fond memory. Her first Little Sister was an 8-year-old girl from Louisiana. Her family had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and the girl had lost a lot of her confidence. Henry spent lunches playing games, reading and just giving the girl attention. “A couple years later, I saw her walking to school one morning with her head up, a smile on her face and a swagger in her step,” Henry says. “It made my day to think I might have been just a small positive part of her life.”
As executive director of in2Action, Dan Hanneken does everything from walking newly released citizens through challenging life situations to helping them reconnect with their children. in2Action provides residential transition support to people recently released from prison. In addition to his work at in2Action, Hanneken also teaches graduate and undergraduate Criminology/Criminal and Juvenile Justice courses at the University of Missouri.
He founded in2Action in 2012 because of his life history and struggles. “Shortly after being released from prison myself in 2003, I started helping our community by starting a prison ministry at The Crossing church,” he says. “We began small with an annual Angel Tree event which provided Christmas gifts to children whose parents were in prison.” Hanneken’s effort to help those in our community recently released from prison began there and has been growing ever since.
Volunteering, especially with programs such as in2Action, that deal with sometimes violent offenders can be difficult. “I believe people wanting to get involved in the community need to know that while this work can be extremely rewarding, it can be heartbreaking as well,” Hanneken says. “We must recognize that we are not in control and just as we cannot take credit for people’s success, we should not feel responsible for their setbacks either.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, in the current age of technology, one of the most positive outcomes Hanneken has seen through in2Action was a text message. “Our guys especially can be much more honest when texting,” he explains. “This particular resident went on and on about how in2Action saved his life. His text read: ‘If not for in2Action I would be dead now, and I would have taken someone else out with me. I realize now that God has a plan for my life and I could not be more grateful. Thank you!’”
Damian Dean Senior
United Community Builders
Damian Dean Senior has been a volunteer through United Community Cathedral Church, the parent company of United Community Builders, since 2000. He helped establish United Community Builders in 2009 and is now the executive director.
In 2018, Dean helped facilitate the pilot program Transformation High, which helped to create capable students, at a Columbia Public School. “The exciting part of this project was laying the groundwork for future students,” he says. “I have seen these students transition from attending classes because of the recommendation of staff, to eagerly participate out of their own desire. It is not always easy to quantitatively demonstrate when the ‘lightbulb’ comes on for a student, but some feedback we’ve received from students includes: ‘I think or at least feel it’s making me a better person,’ ‘I’ve thought more about [my] emotions and [my] communication [with others],’ and ‘It’s given me something to look forward to at school.’”
One of the most positive interactions Dean has had while at United Community Builders happened at the Dinner Table project, which helps bring families back to the table to connect. “We recognize that family mealtime provides an avenue for parents to model socially desirable behaviors for their children while facilitating their development as productive members of society,” he says. “In short we used this project to help feed members of our community during the economic recession of 2008-2011.” During one of these projects, Dean says he overheard a child ask his mom if he could have more food. “I chimed in and said ‘Sure, you can eat as much as you want.’ The little boy’s eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile on his face. His mom began to have tears fill her eyes, and I later discovered that food insecurity was a major issue for the family at the time. Thankfully, at the time our church had a food pantry on-site and we sent the family home with additional groceries. After several months, that young boy’s mother was able to find meaningful employment and started donating some of the best homemade cookies to the project. In the end to see that family’s needs met really blessed my heart.”
Jane Williams co-founded Love INC with Pat McMurry more than 11 years ago. “We opened our doors in 2008,” she says, “But I started dreaming and preparing years before that.”
Now, her official title is program director at Love INC — which coordinates local resources and recruits and trains volunteers who can help people in need move forward toward stability. “Our goal is to serve the whole person and engage the whole community, so I spend a lot of time connecting people and resources across the community,” Williams says.
“For me, serving is a calling and I’m not sure I could quit if I tried,” she continues. “I find great joy in seeing others reach their potential and create better lives for themselves. It gets even better when I can draw others into the giving and serving opportunities — then the joy is multiplied and I can sense that the fabric of our city is being strengthened.”
Since last year, Love INC has served more than 1,100 Columbia households. “We listen without judgment, help people face often very difficult realities and partner with them for change,” she says. “The partners are all of us — community volunteers, churches, businesses and organizations. We provide the structure for people to use their time, talents and resources to help their neighbors in need.”
Through local churches such as Compass Church, Love INC has been able to provide housing for families in need in Columbia. “Four years ago, Pastor Ed Phillips from Compass Church walked into my office and asked, ‘What do you need and what can our church do?’ I responded with, ‘Could you buy a house?’ she says. “We had just had our second homeless single mom with four children walk into our office that week and there were simply no local resources with which to help them. We desperately needed some type of transitional housing for families where they could receive temporary housing, life coaching and a path forward.” Compass Church purchased a home for this family and a year later they bought a second one for the same purpose. “Soon after this, one of the volunteer coaches working with the transitioning families saw such positive results that she and her husband donated a house to Love INC. We have now helped 18 families move from homelessness to stable, permanent housing and would love to enlarge our capacity to do more.
“I have always had eye problems, and in 2013 I became totally blind,” Williams says. “I am extremely grateful to the many people who have given their time to assist me, so I can continue to serve the community. I was particularly overwhelmed by community support at our first Linking for Love event in 2016, when nearly 400 people from 80 local churches came together to celebrate local collaborations. I had no idea such a large crowd had gathered until I heard the applause. Then, in 2018, at our first Over the Edge fundraiser, I heard over the loudspeaker as I rappelled The Tiger Hotel that I had met my $10,000 goal. All I could think was that maybe what I was doing was making a difference after all.”
University of Missouri Department of Psychiatry
Laine Young-Walker — recently named chair of the Department of Psychiatry at University of Missouri Health Care — has helped create and maintain six child psychiatry outreach programs. Her goal? To help children in Missouri, where there is only one child psychiatrist for every 1,000 kids and where, of the state’s 114 counties, 89 don’t have a single provider.
Young-Walker was one of the founding members of MU’s Bridge Program in 2015. The program provides a free psychiatric evaluation and at least two follow-up appointments for any Boone County student in public, private or home school. “The teams I have created and work with are making a very important impact in the community,” she says. “We are providing services that did not exist in the past.”
Young-Walker is also the Associate Dean for Student Programs with the MU School of Medicine. Another program Young-Walker helped create and maintain is the Missouri Child Psychiatry Access Project (MO-CPAP), which provides free, same-day phone consultations to primary care physicians treating young patients with mental health problems.
The positive results she sees, whether feedback from parents, school personnel or primary care providers, let her know that her work is making a difference. “Parents who have utilized Triple P interventions with their children are now are able to interact in a more positive way and say they like to spend time with their children now (when they did not in the past),” she says.
As the new chair of the Department of Psychiatry at MU, her day-to-day duties include outpatient, inpatient, school-based psychiatry, and prevention-early intervention programs for early childhood. “The inability to say no is the biggest thing,” Young-Walker says of her overflowing calendar. “The second thing, though, is because I really want to feel like I’ve made an impact.”
For those that want to be more involved in the community, Young-Walker recommends taking the time to listen to community stakeholders. “By listening to providers, parents, schools, children and anyone that touches those children’s lives, we are able to work on ways to enhance collaboration,” she says.
Some of Young-Walker’s favorite memories of her work include feedback from parents regarding the difference her programs have made. “Bridge saw and treated a child then referred them for ongoing clinical care,” she says. “I ran into the mom in the clinic she was referred to and she said, ‘Thank you so much for your help with Bridge and my son. The program saved his life.’”
Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center
Karen Grindler, owner and co-founder of Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center, has been helping both children and adults in the community since 1988. She founded the equine therapy riding center with the help of her then riding instructor, Amy Reece, after seeing a program on “20/20” one night about children with Down Syndrome who benefitted from equine therapy.
“Well, I have a horse. Why can’t I begin an equine therapy center?” Grindler asked herself at the time.
Today, Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center enables both mentally and physically disabled people of all ages to participate in equine therapy. The riders are led by workers and volunteers during weekly sessions in the fall, spring and/or summer. During these classes, riders get to spend time with horses, both on and off the saddle, while participating in games and trail rides.
Grindler says her desire to start the riding center was specifically found in a single moment when she was driving to her riding lesson that same night and she heard a quote on the radio from inspirational author Ram Dass about finding something within her own community that needs to be done. “After hearing that quote over the radio, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” Grindler says. She didn’t believe Boone County had an equine therapy center, and she would soon confirm, it needed one.
Although Reece moved in 1998, Grindler had become a certified instructor and was able to take over the facility. “This facility will be here forever, even after I’m gone,” Grindler says.
One of Grindler’s favorite memories from Cedar Creek is the story of Max. Max was born with partial agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition that doesn’t allow the two hemispheres of the brain to connect completely, resulting in the loss of crosswire movements such as walking. At the first session to determine if Max would benefit from Cedar Creek, Grindler bet his dad that Max would walk. She was later admonished by the therapist for giving the family too much hope, but to Grindler there is no such thing.
Seven weeks later Max’s dad ran up to the barn carrying Max, set down his son, and yelled, “Max can walk!” Grindler says “this was an amazing moment for me — this was the first time that doctors said something would never happen but at Cedar Creek it did and now it happens a lot.”
Grindler has been able to accomplish something most people dream of — to find her passion in life and use that passion to help people; “This is everything I do and want to do,” she says.
Susan Hart wears many hats. She is co-owner of Huebert builders, the former Chair of the Board of Directors at Columbia Chamber of Commerce, and is currently the Rotary District 6080 Grants Subcommittee Chair. In her role with the Rotary Foundation, she helps to manage grants both locally and internationally.
In 2002, Hart was the co-leader of a Habitat for Humanity house that was built by all female workers. “It was amazing to see the women come together to use their talents and build a home for and with the family. It was both challenging and rewarding at the same time. A few women-owned businesses were started because of the house build.”
When it comes to juggling a career and volunteer work, Hart says for her, it was never an option to do just one. “For me volunteering is a priority because it is important to my goals and morals. I do not view volunteering as an option, it is something I must do and therefore find the time. My small business needs me to be involved in the community and make sure it is the best it can be. My family needs me to make it a priority to give back to our community. As my sons grow, I make sure I also pick volunteer opportunities for them to come along with me and help too. I hope I am teaching them the same sense of obligation to community service that my parents instilled in me!”
City of Refuge
Lori Stoll was one of the founding members, along with her husband, Barry Stoll, of City of Refuge 10 years ago. Both she and her husband are still very involved; she as refugee care coordinator and he as director of refugee care. Through City of Refuge, Stoll helps provide basic needs fulfillment, counseling and professional development for refugee and immigrant families in the community. City of Refuge helps approximately 500 men, women and children each year.
“I have had countless positive experiences, from attending a birth to helping someone acquire their first home to witnessing someone watch a movie for the first time.”
“I met a few refugees at my church and started volunteering there,” she says. “It soon led to visiting them in their homes and helping them learn how to cook, read mail, take them to the doctor, etc.”
Prior to co-founding City of Refuge, Stoll was a stay-at-home mom involved in foster care and adoption, including working as a volunteer coordinator at Rainbow House prior to stepping into her current role.
“I have had countless positive experiences, from attending a birth to helping someone acquire their first home to witnessing someone watch a movie for the first time.”
One experience Stoll remembers vividly is helping a young man with his elderly mother, who was sick. “I received a phone call from a young man who was trying to help his elderly mother get to the doctor by bus in freezing weather. He called to say she wasn’t any better. I asked, ‘what did the doctor say?’ He relayed that he said what was wrong and just handed them a piece of paper. I went to their home and saw the paper. It was her prescription for antibiotics. They were trying so hard to be independent, yet would suffer if it wasn’t for someone coming alongside.”
When it comes to helping people in Columbia, Stoll recommends an old adage. “Just walk a mile in their shoes — a few yards are not enough. Listen to their story. Your eyes will soon be opened. Anyone can give compassion and friendship.”
For her, City of Refuge is rewarding because the refugees they see have faced unbearable trauma and difficulties. “They continue to encounter difficulty here with language barriers that lead to inequalities so it is an honor to help lessen their burden,” she says.