If R.J. Stephenson could pick a book title to describe his life, it might be “A River Runs Through It.”
“I have always loved being on the water,” he said, recounting his days canoeing as a Boy Scout and using the lawn mowing money he earned as a teen to purchase a raft. Since then, he's floated rivers all over North America, including the Colorado River, which slices through the Grand Canyon, 10 times.
But it's the river closest to home, the Kansas River, that has captured Stephenson's heart. His advocacy for the Kansas River has earned him the honor of being selected as the Friends of the Kaw Inc.'s United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center Volunteer of the Year for Leadership/Board Service.
“The mission of Friends of the Kaw is to protect and preserve the river for present and future generations,” explained Laura Caldwell, Kansas riverkeeper for FOK. “One of our most effective educational tools is to get people out on the river.”
That's where Stephenson comes in. The vice president of the Friends of the Kaw board and editor of the group's newsletter, Stephenson's favorite volunteer job is gliding down the Kansas River in a canoe, helping people discover the beauty of the waterway during one of the FOK's educational float trips.
“In my view, what I do helps connect people to the Kansas River,” explained Stephenson, who works for Himpel Lumber in Tonganoxie. “It gives them a feel for what they didn't know was there or for environmental systems they didn't understand. Once they get connected, once they understand the need for quality water, once they enjoy a day floating down the Kaw, then I think their world becomes a better place for them and all of us. In the long run it will make Douglas County and counties all along the river a better place to live.”
For Stephenson, volunteering with FOK is the best of both worlds. He can support a cause he loves and benefit personally.
“My life has been enriched by the fact that there are small things I can do along the way to help take care of special places,” he said. “I don't have to be the spokesman or the leader, but if I can do my small part, and if things are better for someone else, that's a good thing.”