FLORENCE, Ky. — Florence Rotary Club has named Mark and Debbie Staggs of Florence as the 2017 Citizens of the Year for their more than quarter century of leadership of the Special Olympics of Northern Kentucky.

The club honored the Staggses at an Aug. 14 luncheon at the Hilton Cincinnati Airport on Turfway Road in Florence.

The Staggses stepped into leadership positions in Special Olympics for the 10-county region of Northern Kentucky in 1990. They have shepherded the program through a period of enormous growth – from seven one-day events a year to 17 sports with team schedules that frequently overlap during the year.

“The Florence Rotary Club is very proud to recognize Mark and Debbie Staggs for their commitment and dedication to the Special Olympics of Northern Kentucky for 27 years,” said Jacob Brooks, Florence Rotary Club president and executive director of the R.C. Durr Branch of Greater Cincinnati YMCA.

“We have several athletes who train at the YMCA to prepare for the Special Olympics. The glow that these athletes possess after competing and winning a medal in their event is priceless. Many of them wear their medals around their neck for weeks on end. These athletes would not have this enriching experience if it were not for Mark and Debbie’s efforts.”

The Staggses grew up in Erlanger. Mark Staggs spent 27 years at R.A. Jones as a field service engineer and electronic support manager. He worked eight years as a maintenance team leader at General Mills Chex cereal plant in Cincinnati before joining Sam Adams Brewery as brewery maintenance supervisor in 2009.

Debbie Staggs has spent 32 years in elementary education and special education, including stints at Glenn O. Swing in Covington, Crescent Springs in Kenton County and Gray Middle School in Union. She serves as eighth-grade counselor and seventh- and eighth-grade special education counselor at Gray Middle School.

The Staggses’ involvement with Special Olympics started with family. They have stayed with it for 27 years because of family and volunteers from all walks of life who have evolved into an extended family of sorts.

“It’s about making friends. That’s what keeps us going,” Mark said. “We’ve met a lot of people who have become good friends. We look forward to seeing them (at activities and events). You can call them up any time and they’ll be there.”

Debbie started as a volunteer first, when the Staggses were looking for something for their special needs son, John, to do besides watch “Sesame Street” on TV, Mark said. When the program directors stepped down, he stepped in.

He’s been program director for the Northern Kentucky region ever since. Two or three years into his leadership tenure, Special Olympics decided to expand beyond one-day events into team sports. Soccer came first, a sport about which the Staggses knew little.

Mark leaned on his brother, who not only helped out but led him to a volunteer who taught them the sport for over a year. The Staggses also recruited friends and neighbors to help with teams and games.

Hence was born a strategy that has effectively sustained expansion into year-round sports activities. Logistics alone now require 900 unpaid volunteers a year and a budget of $80,000 to $90,000 to support sports ranging from bocce to basketball and softball to snowshoeing.

“I used to work a lot of bingos to raise funds,” Debbie said. “That was a hard way to do it.” They now sponsor two major fundraisers a year, the Joe Walter Golf Outing and the Bean Bash. They also receive a lot of assistance from the Boone County Parks Department in scheduling sports fields and local school systems that provide fields and volunteers. “We were lucky along the way to find people eager to help,’ Mark said. “We try not to overuse them.”

The Staggses’ son John died in 2013 at age 33. They lost a daughter, Kimberly, at age 3. They have a special needs daughter, Jennifer, who is 29 and flourishing in Special Olympics sports.

“When she’s playing one-team sport, she starts asking when another is going to start,” Mark said.

Established in 1945, the Florence Rotary Club consists of 100 business and community leaders from across Northern Kentucky. It is part of Rotary International, an organization of 1.2 million neighbors, friends and community leaders who come together to create positive, lasting change in communities and around the world.


Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer, http://www.nky.com