11 Jun SHARING THE LIGHT: Story Of Inspiring Goodwill Employee Leads To Positive Developments
After an accident robbed him of his ability to walk, Danny Stephens was adrift — searching for something or someone to show him the way.
“Danny was in a very dark place,” his mother, Susan Williams recalled. “He just didn’t understand why this happened to him and how he was going to make it in this world. He doubted himself.”
Danny’s loving family and girlfriend, his doctors and physical therapists and his own creativity — channeled through woodworking projects in his garage — all helped him to cope. But it was a job at the local Goodwill store that allowed Danny to begin charting a new course for his life, restoring his confidence and drive to be independent.
“Goodwill has definitely been a lighthouse for me,” Danny said.
Don Kania and his wife were pondering ways to attract new visitors to their mini-golf course when they conceived the idea of a scale-model lighthouse.
“We were hoping a lighthouse would get people’s attention,” Don explained, “And being a Christian-based business, with Jesus being the light of the world, it fit our philosophy.”
The couple, who own Victory Fun Park in Lewisburg, Tenn., looked at lighthouses online and prayed for help in finding someone to build one. Two days later, Don saw a TV news story on Facebook about a Lewisburg Goodwill employee who inspires people, not only through his friendly service at the store but also through colorful wooden creations — including lighthouses — which he builds by hand.
Don visited Goodwill in January to talk to Danny Stephens, who agreed to tackle the project. Danny worked on the lighthouse while sheltering at home from the pandemic, when Goodwill stores were temporarily closed. On June 1, a small group of people gathered at the mini-golf course for an informal dedication of the lighthouse.
A scale-model of the famed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, it features the familiar red-and-tan brick base, barber-pole striped mid-section and lantern room top with an electric beacon that revolves at night.
At 15 feet, the three sections of the replica were too tall and heavy to be assembled by hand. Don had to borrow a bucket truck to finish the job. The lighthouse now rests on the green on Hole No. 3, where golfers have the choice of putting around it or under it.
“Danny is such a talented artist — so meticulous,” Don said. “And his attitude is so positive considering all the challenges he’s faced.”
Danny was just 23 when the accident occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 2011. Just a month earlier, the former Marshall County High School football standout ran a 5K race, finishing 60th out of 1,000 participants. He had a good job at a local car parts factory, and he had just purchased a new motorcycle.
Danny was riding the motorcycle when a car pulled out in front of him at an intersection, and the resulting impact crushed several vertebrae in his spine. After a nine-hour surgery to save his life, Danny learned he would likely never walk again.
“Danny struggled with depression pretty bad,” his mother said. “He was a clown in school his whole life, and the accident kind of took that away from him.”
But his experiences in rehabilitation — seeing the determination and optimism of people with more severe paralysis — helped Danny recalibrate his outlook. He resolved to serve as an inspiration to others.
THE WAY FORWARD
Danny had always enjoyed working with his hands, so he began doing woodworking projects at home to take his mind off his troubles. He built miniature rocking chairs out of popsicle sticks and intricate scale models of loved ones’ homes. He built wishing wells. He also began building 8-foot tall lighthouses, the first of which he presented to the hospital doctors and nurses who saved his life.
“On the coast, a lighthouse provides a light to guide ships through rough waters,” Danny explained. “I’m in a wheelchair, and life has been rough on me. So a lighthouse represents hope — something to guide my way.”
By 2017, Danny felt ready to return to work. He investigated several possibilities without success before trying Goodwill. Danny was hired as a greeter at the Lewisburg Goodwill store, but quickly mastered other duties. The store’s manager had a cash register lowered to the height of his wheelchair so Danny could become a cashier — the job he holds today.
He is a favorite of customers, frequently cracking jokes to make them laugh. His supervisor says he is a star performer, constantly amazing co-workers with how much he can accomplish.
Danny, now 31, says Goodwill changed his life by giving him an opportunity to share his talents and energy with others.
The Cape Hatteras replica lighthouse is Danny’s largest project by far. It took him about 100 hours to complete.
“If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I probably could have done it in half the time,” he said. “But also if I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I wouldn’t be as motivated to prove to myself that I could build it.”
Coincidentally, the same news story that led Don Kania to Danny also led to Danny receiving a special wheelchair that helped him build Don’s lighthouse.
By late 2019, Danny’s manual wheelchair was thoroughly worn out, and he was due to receive a new one through Medicare. Danny wished for a power chair that would assist him in standing, both because standing conveys health benefits for people with paralysis and because it allows them to do many things they cannot do while sitting down.
A wheelchair of that type costs in the neighborhood of $10,000 and is not typically covered by Medicare, Danny said. That meant it was out of reach for him.
Danny had been speaking to a representative of a provider of wheelchairs and other medical equipment about replacing his old chair. When the company representative saw Danny’s story on TV, he arranged for Danny to receive a new standing wheelchair. Not only has the chair allowed Danny to easily wash dishes and perform countless other tasks at home and work, it helped him complete the tallest portions of his newest lighthouse.
“I was really blessed to get that chair,” Danny said. “It’s made a huge difference.”
Danny’s mom says Goodwill has been a common thread between many of the positive developments in his life, such as new friends, new customers for his woodworking and newfound independence via his wheelchair.
“Once Danny got that job at Goodwill, he did a 360 (degree turn),” she said. “It was amazing. He started getting back to being himself.”