When James Stevens was 3, his mother Clare had been referred to a preschool for children with special needs as other adults told her “something’s not right.”
They said he was developmentally delayed or emotionally disturbed — in the early 1980s the developmental disability we know as “autism” today wasn’t as well known.
By the time James was in his teens, his father, Mike, said he excelled academically in both his special ed and “mainstream” classes at Bethel High School and would go on to graduate from Thomas Nelson Community College in 2002 even after they’d been told in the past kids like James didn’t typically graduate high school.
“Eventually he went on and had three years of Spanish at Bethel and was in the Spanish Honor Society, took French, and at Thomas Nelson during one semester was taking Spanish, French, and German all at the same time,” Mike said.
After James died from cancer in May 2018, his parents decided to honor him by supporting post-secondary education for students, who like James, have exceptional ability but aren’t always encouraged to pursue higher education or occupational training.
“I hope that [the scholarship] would be a source of inspiration to them, ‘somebody believes in me’…that it would be an encouragement,” Clare said.
In a partnership with the Peninsula Community Foundation of Virginia, the Stevens family is awarding nine James M. Stevens Memorial Scholarships to selected students from each Hampton City high school, each York County high school, and Poquoson High School by April this year.
Lori Ward, the director of scholarships for the foundation, said it’s not typical to come by a scholarship for students with special needs or who have an individualized education plan (IEP) at their school.
Mike said scholarship’s application and selection process is also unique as it’s based not on grade-point average or community service hours but puts the process in the hands of special education teachers to nominate and choose the students they know have the potential to see it through.
“We also felt from our experience with James that if there were a more usual structure where a student applies and gets references and writes an essay, this would look like climbing Mount Everest to a student who already finds school a challenge,” Clare said.
Educational inclusion for students with special needs is another goal for the scholarship — the family said they hope teachers outside of special education classes will see how capable some the students are and take a chance on them the way James’ language, chemistry, and other mainstream teachers took a chance on him.
The family found that college was somewhere James, who had a passion for history and language, could thrive but they also know that gaining independence as an adult with special needs may mean occupational training and learning job skills.
That’s why the James M. Stevens Memorial Scholarship will also pay $2,000 for trade school, apprenticeship, a vocational certification training program, or “anything beyond secondary school that requires some sort of formal training,” Mike said.
After his graduation from TNCC, James loved his job stocking shelves at the commissary on Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton where his parents said he had a whole other family.
“We didn’t know that until after he died just how much fun they had together,” Mike said.
He also enjoyed traveling any historic site with a gift shop, bowling, anything with barbecue sauce, and creating large 3D paper sculptures that the family said is still displayed throughout their home in Yorktown.
Just the way James continued working and doing all the things he loved all the way up to his death at 38 years old, the family said they hope the scholarship will become self-sustaining to offer the same for generations of students who have to work a little harder toward whatever makes them happy.
“These kids are coming from way back in the pack in competing with ‘normal’ kids and they have so much more that they have to do to get to a certain level. They work very hard,” Mike said.
For more information or to contribute to the Peninsula Community Foundation of Virginia, click here.
Learn more about James from his parents Mike and Clare: