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Stacey Lehrer
Stacey Lehrer, founder of the New Hampshire chapter of Winners on Wheels, is one of more than 600 undergraduates who volunteer in the Seacoast. Photo by George Barker.

Local Heroes

Zach Hastings puts on the magician's hat and maneuvers his wheelchair over to the circle of children forming by the windows of the Devine Hall lounge. The others adjust their wheelchairs to make room for him, laughing as they try on the different hats they'll wear that afternoon as they work toward their Clowning Around badge.

Zach and 12 other children get together at UNH every other weekend as part of a program started by a UNH undergraduate. Sophomore Stacey Lehrer, of Cranston, R.I., organized the first Winners on Wheels (WOW) chapter in New Hampshire during her first year at UNH. The national organization offers social and recreational opportunities for children in wheelchairs. "Often they're the only kids in wheelchairs in their schools," Lehrer says. They're always having to find ways to adapt. Here we do all the adapting for them."

An occupational therapy major with a 4.0 average, Lehrer has been working with people with disabilities since she was 16. She works at a summer camp for people with disabilities, teaches swimming and water safety in the Dover Adapted Aquatics Program, trains Girl Scout leaders to work with special needs students, volunteers with a Special Olympics middle school team in Durham and for Best Buddies, which pairs college students with teens and adults with mental retardation. She also tutors elementary school students in reading and is an e-mail mentor for a middle school student in rural Maine.

Lehrer is one of the many UNH students who together logged more than 56,322 hours of community service in the Seacoast last year. The value of that service is more than $805,000, based on the Points of Light Foundation's estimated hourly wage of $14.30. More than 600 undergraduates volunteered at local schools and service agencies, according to Marianne Fortescue, director of UNH's Partnership for Social Action. She estimates that the actual numbers of students and hours are higher, as other offices on campus perform community service but do not keep track of hours spent.

Lehrer alone spends 20 hours a week on her various volunteer activities, including about six on WOW during the week that it meets. The impact she and the seven other WOW volunteers are having is clear.

"Over the past year we have watched in awe as she created a program, found a place for it, and recruited and trained volunteers," the WOW parents wrote in a letter to the organization's newsletter. "Our children have complex issues and present complex challenges, yet Stacey and her volunteers developed and implemented a program in which our children's differences seemed almost irrelevant--a program in which they were able to be 'just kids.'"

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