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Stephanie Mills Visser '04,
Living the Dream

You would have to trot to catch up with Stephanie, winner of the KSC Alumni Inspiration Award in 2008 and a living example of what it means to "go forth to serve."

Stephanie Mills Visser courtesy photo Stephanie Mills Visser's earliest recollection of community service is working with her family at a church-sponsored soup kitchen. She was only in second grade.

As she grew older, the work of Mother Theresa in India inspired her, and at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Connecticut, Stephanie began to develop as a leader and community advocate. She served as president of Rotary Interact, the community service organization, and worked with young women to educate them about domestic violence.

During Stephanie's second week at KSC, she walked in to see Don Hayes, the director of community service, and asked for a job. Don, knowing a born leader when he saw one, hired her on the spot.

As a first-year student, she was selected to lead an Alternative Spring Break trip to Charleston, South Carolina (a place that would resurface in her life). In her sophomore year she was elected vice president of the Habitat for Humanity chapter and organized and led KSC's first international Habitat trip, to Costa Rica. She was active in a wide range of activities throughout her four years at Keene State.

In her senior year, Stephanie rounded out her college career with a Semester at Sea program. When the ship docked in India, Rajesekhar Babu, whom Stephanie had met in Keene during her sophomore year when he visited to raise money for his orphanage in Bapatala, India, met her at the dock. They traveled five hours by train to Bapatala, where she spent six days working on a Habitat house and at his orphanage.

Stephanie Mills Visser courtesy photo

In India during her Semester at Sea in 2004, Stephanie Mills Visser worked on a Habitat build in Bapatala (above) and at Rajesekhur Babu's orphanage in that city (below).

Stephanie Mills Visser courtesy photo

Stephanie continued her service work after graduation. Her first effort involved an internship at IBM, where she helped create a pilot program to encourage and reward IBM retirees for community service efforts. She also donated a good portion of her personal earnings from this internship to Rajesekhar in India to help fund the building of a home in Bapatala. In recognition, one of the Habitat homes there has a plaque lauding Stephanie's work and the monetary contributions of the KSC Habitat chapter.

Memories of her first trip to Charleston had a tremendous impact on her life. She returned in the fall of 2005 to work toward a master's degree in public administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management, which she earned in May 2007. While she was there, she organized her fellow grad students on a service trip to Pass Christian, Mississippi, to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina and worked in the Housing and Community Development Office of the city of Charleston.

"At the end of the day, life is a give-and-take situation where things are constantly evolving, and even the roles of ‘giver' and ‘receiver' have become foggy."

In October 2007, Stephanie started work as the community service coordinator at the College of Charleston. In January 2008, she organized 15 day-long service projects to celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She raised $60,000 in four and a half months and recruited nearly 1,000 volunteers to work with the local Habitat affiliate to build a home.

She also led a trip to Jamaica where the team of nine tutored in two local schools and built a school playground. Last year she orchestrated bringing the Bonner Leader Program to the College of Charleston. This program offers intense leadership training that helps students transition from volunteers to leaders in their community. She was selected as Supervisor of the Year for 2009-10 and became the director of the college's Center for Civic Engagement last February.

Stephanie said her primary goal for the next two years was to successfully work through the labyrinth of paperwork involved in adopting a young child. She and her husband Paul Visser '03 (a fourth-grade teacher who recently was chosen as Teacher of the Year at his elementary school in Charleston) hope to become parents of a child from either Russia or Kazakhstan in the not-too-distant future.

Stephanie credits her father's strong work ethic and his focus on their family as a continuing influence on her life's work. That attitude was reinforced at KSC, particularly by her favorite professor, Susan Herman: "Susan always expected a lot. She demanded excellence. I always pushed myself to try to meet her expectations."

Stephanie is results oriented and loves the satisfaction of completing something tangible, like a house or a playground or a day of playing games with children with AIDS.

She also offered this thought: "When I first started doing community service, everyone would say that I was doing a good thing and that my work made me a special person. Through the years what I have realized is that we are all good people, and each one of us has something special to offer. At the end of the day, life is a give-and-take situation where things are constantly evolving and even the roles of ‘giver' and ‘receiver' have become foggy."