Honoring a volunteer whose value can't be measured in dollars

March 11, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County is lucky that Kenneth Stevens hasn't sent a bill for his work.

"You would think he was getting a six-figure salary for the level of work he's doing," said Mabel B. Canada, an investigator in the Howard County Office of Human Rights, where Mr. Stevens has volunteered since 1985.

Workers in the human rights office have nominated the 15-year Savage resident for the Columbia Volunteer Corps' 20th Volunteer Recognition Awards, which includes six categories of awards. Thirty-seven people have been nominated.

Winners were selected yesterday, but will not be announced until the awards luncheon April 18.

Judges look at what impact the person's work has had on the community, the person's commitment to volunteer work and how much of a community need there is for the person's work.

"Basically what we're looking for is someone who makes a difference in the community," said Nancy Weber, chairwoman of the volunteer recognition and awards luncheon.

Mr. Stevens maintains the computer data bases for the human rights office, tracking complaints, cases and statistics 17 to 24 hours a week.

"I thought it was good way to spend a couple days a week," said Mr. Stevens, retired from a classified position at the U.S. Department of Defense.

"If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing it."

While he doesn't recall why he chose to work in the human rights office, Mr. Stevens said he has long had a passion for individual rights and freedoms.

He is a member of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has been on the county Democratic Central Committee since 1990 and is coordinator of the county chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I just believe that everyone should have an equal shot," he said. "I'm a rebel . . . It just comes from the way I was brought up."

Mr. Stevens, 60, is the oldest in a family of seven brothers and one sister raised in Stratham, N.H., then a town of 750. About 4,000 people live there now.

Mr. Stevens said he enjoyed growing up around the caring and unselfish people in the small town, where he played football and baseball on the open fields and farmlands.

That image of the world was shattered during part of his tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, in which he served from 1953 to 1957. While stationed in Biloxi, Miss., he was sickened by the rigid segregation.

"They were still fighting the Civil War down there," he said.

"Some of the Southern people are as nice as they can be -- until you get to one subject. I was glad to leave Mississippi."

When he moved to Maryland in 1961, after graduating from the University of New Hampshire, he began his own campaign to right what he saw as injustices in society.

For the past 30 years, in addition to his work for the government, Mr. Stevens has testified on the county and state level about equal rights and freedom of expression, and has also voiced his positions through letters to local newspapers.

He has taken positions on such topics as the Equal Rights Amendment, the male-only draft and liquor licenses for private clubs and organizations with discriminatory policies.

"When he believes in something, he really works for it," said County Council member Shane Pendergrass.

Del. Martin Madden, D-13A, also praises Mr. Stevens.

"You have to admire someone like Ken," he said.

"He has consistently opposed some of the bills I have proposed, but I admire his participation in the process," Mr. Madden said.

Since 1985, the local Office of Human Rights has been the beneficiary of Mr. Stevens' energy. He began volunteering in his off hours while he was working for the federal government.

After he retired in 1988, Mr. Stevens began volunteering more regularly at the office, which has eight paid staff members.

"He's a part of the family," said James Henson, director of the Office of Human Rights. "He's a wonderful guy to have on your team.

"I told the county administrator that I was going to triple his salary," he joked.

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