Ogden Stephens honored with state award for helping citizens with disabilities

Published 12:05 am Thursday, November 23, 2017


NATCHEZ — Matilda Ogden Stephens said she does not understand why she will receive a statewide award from the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities.

The Torchbearer Awards highlight individuals in Mississippi who have dedicated time and effort to the betterment of citizens with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses.

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“I’m excited — I really am — but I was shocked,” Ogden Stephens said. “There are so many people who deserve it.”

Contrary to her doubts and protestations, Ogden Stephens’ history helping men and women with mental disability is deep.

When Ogden Stephens was a junior in college — a dance major at the University of Southern Mississippi — something terrible happened.

Ogden Stephens said her college roommate invited her to volunteer at the Special Olympics with her.

While there, talking with competitors and working, Ogden Stephens stepped down from a platform not two feet high and injured her leg.

“I went one way, and my leg went the other,” she said. “I couldn’t dance. I had to change my major.”

Instead of seeing the accident as a career-ending tragedy, Ogden Stephens said she thought the fall was a sign.

“The community I found there, I just fell madly in love,” she said. “I think it was a God thing. God put me there.”

Ogden Stephens changed her major that year and has worked with men and women with disabilities ever since.

“It’s my passion,” she said. “Around people with disabilities, that’s where I’m most comfortable.”

Ogden Stephens began work as a services director for Southwest Mississippi Mental Health Complex, where she oversaw the development of services for adults with serious mental illnesses and developmental disabilities in 10 counties.

As her career progressed to grants manager, executive director and adjunct professor in different institutions across the state, Ogden Stephens said her passion for what she calls “her population” never waned.

“They see the pureness in humanity,” she said. “They don’t see race or economic status or religion. If they love you, they love you.”

Ogden Stephens said she became passionate about the socialization of persons with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

In a program she developed, the only one like it in the state, men and women with developmental disabilities or mental illness made up the complete staff.

The program, Magnolia Industries, provided jobs to her population while providing a setting which was geared toward and built for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

Pairing the persons with mental illness with people with developmental disabilities, Ogden Stephens said, was relatively unheard of at the time.

“People treated mental illness and developmental disorders as completely incompatible,” she said. “I couldn’t stand the idea of labeling people. I thought you could take away the labels and group people by ability, not disability.”

The jobs ranged from complicated positions running forklifts and heavy machinery for high-functioning persons to low-functioning positions where a worker only needed to be able to separate plastic by color.

The center provided Ogden Stephen’s population could earn an income, socialize and perhaps most importantly, feel needed.

Many people often treat inclusion as one disabled person in a room full of differently abled people, but being singled out as “different,” she said, can be just as alienating as not being included at all.

Instead, Ogden Stephens said she strived to create places where her population could feel most comfortable with others like them.

“Like everyone else, we feel comfortable with people like us,” she said. “We’re not making an exception for them, we’re designing it for them.”

In 2012, after an eight-year stint working with abused children in Sunshine Children’s Center, Ogden Stephens decided she wanted to step into lighter work.

She became the regional membership specialist for Girl Scouts of Greater Mississippi, but she couldn’t leave her population behind for long.

Ogden Stephens began a Girl Scout troop that included almost exclusively children with developmental disabilities.

Now, Ogden Stephens is busy being a grandmother, a summer camp leader, sometimes even a snake-wrangler when necessary. But she said she can feel her old job calling.

“I miss it,” she said. “I feel like I can do more.”

Her dream of dreams, the 60-year-old woman said, is purchasing and renovating the Natchez Elks Lodge. She wants to turn it into a facility for men and women with mental disabilities or illnesses.

“I guess I’ll just have to win the lottery,” she said.

Even after a life spent coaching, guiding and advocating for people with disabilities, Ogden Stephens said she does not understand why the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities chose her.

Ogden Stephens will be one of five to receive the 2017 Torchbearer’s award on Nov. 30 at the Arts Center of Mississippi.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a huge honor,” Ogden Stephens said. “I’m just shocked.”