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Earlier this year, a Wapakoneta High School graduate and one of the earliest members of the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame earned one of the highest honors bestowed by the Queen of England to the new resident of New Zealand.
Susan (Smith) Stevens, who graduated from Wapakoneta High School in 1980 and was elected to the Wapakoneta High School Alumni Hall of Fame in 2010, earned the Queens Service Medal for her volunteer work in the country since 1999.
The Queen’s Service Medal is a medal awarded by the government of New Zealand to recognize and reward volunteer service to the community and also public service in elected or appointed public office. It was established in 1975 and is related to the Queen’s Service Order.
Stevens, who migrated to New Zealand in 1999 with her husband, Terry, had to catch her breath when she received a letter from the country’s governor general.
“The Governor General’s stationary is very high quality and beautifully embossed with the official seal, so when I found this gorgeous looking envelope in the box, I was quite taken aback,” Stevens said. “I opened it immediately and was completely shocked though absolutely elated to find that I’d been nominated. I wanted to share the news, but you’re told to keep it in confidence until a decision is made.”
She explained a person is advised by the country’s prime minister that they intend to put a person’s name forward to the queen for the honors list. The person is asked if they are happy to be considered. Then the person has to wait for weeks for another letter advising them of the outcome, but the person cannot talk about the possible honor.
“I was so excited during that time, but I couldn’t say anything to anyone, because I didn’t know if I’d be selected,” the daughter of Elaine and John Poppe said regarding first learning about it in early August. “I did tell my mom and my sister, Jamie (Crisp-Allen), that I might have some really big news in a month or so, but that was it. For me the most exciting times were getting the letter saying I was nominated and the investiture ceremony itself.”
On Sept. 4, she received the medal during an investiture ceremony in Government House, Wellington, New Zealand.
Stevens, who lives with her husband live in Gibbston on the country’s South Island, joined the Gibbston Community Association and was elected secretary of the club in 2001. After being appointed a chair in 2006, she facilitated the construction of the Gibbston River Trail among other community projects.
She raised $1.4 million funding, secured public access easements from private landholders, coordinated workers and experts and physically helped to establish the trail, which officially opened in 2010.
Her community service started 12 years of work for the former Wapakoneta resident. When she was elected a committee chair, she worked a minimum of 50 volunteer hours per week.
“I worked for nearly four years with only 3 or 4 hours a sleep a night,” Stevens said. “That was not a pretty time and it took a toll on my health, but that was what it took to get everything done, so I did it. There were a few periods when I collapsed from exhaustion, but basically I somehow managed to keep going for all that time. Looking back, I have no idea how I managed it. I do know I have a very tolerant and supportive husband — that’s for sure.”
In conjunction with the Department of Conservation and the Historic Places Trust, she worked to develop a rest area, community reserve, or park. the river trail, and a rubbish and recycling depot. She also worked to organize a Harvest Festival, rescued the settlement at Rum Currie’s Hut, protecting a heritage orchard and gold mining relics, as well as looked after road, water supply and community clean-up projects.
She installed a car park, picnic tables, toilets and interpretative signage,
Her work and the work of other volunteers in the region paid off as the Gibbston community was named the New Zealand Community of the Year for 2011. The association earned numerous awards under her leadership including twice winning the Supreme Winner of the TrustPower Community Awards.
In 2011, she was appointed to the Otago Conservation Board and was elected chair of the Wakatipu Heritage Trust in 2012. Now she is working to establish the Grateful Citizens Society Charitable Trust to continue asset development and heritage preservation in the Queenstown Lakes District.
She said she learned the value of volunteering her time and making her community better by growing up in Wapakoneta.
“Becoming a New Zealand citizen is a privilege that is not extended to everyone and I feel very grateful that Terry and I were granted that privilege,” said Stevens, who became a naturalized citizen along with her husband in 2002. “I wanted to give something back to my new home in return. That’s just something that I learned growing up in Wapak.
“Mom, and teachers and other role models, taught me to appreciate what I was given and to express my gratitude in my actions and not just with words,” she said. “I always remember being told that if I borrowed something, I should return it in better condition than when I received it. So, for example, when I borrowed a friend’s car, I returned it washed and with a full tank of gas. In this case, I guess I felt that I had a lot to live up to show my gratitude for New Zealand citizenship.”
Stevens also took a different approach compared to the other communities in her district to achieve the goals of the association.
“Rather than agitating and waiting for government to solve our problems, I offered to raise the money or whatever other resources we needed to achieve the outcomes that our community wanted, if the government would give us permission to do the work on those assets,” Stevens said. “We started small by addressing safety issues on one of our roads by clearing vegetation that was blocking visibility. Once council staff were satisfied that we’d followed the right procedures and completed the work without any safety problems, we got permission from Council and the New Zealand Transport Authority, which the New Zealand Transport Authority is the national agency that looks after our highways, to develop a rest area on New Zealand Transport Authority land.”
With the completion of each project, the association and its members gained credibility with the different levels of government and with their network of contacts which enabled the group to take on more projects.
Creating a different mindset and developing a new strategy, Stevens made headway with volunteers and real change took effect.
“We can choose to be part of the problem or we can choose to be part of the solution,” Steven said. “From my perspective, if you choose to do nothing but complain that the government isn’t doing enough, then you’re part of the problem. Any asset that is ‘owned’ by the government, whether it is a park or highway or community building, is our asset.
“For example, in New Zealand, the Department of Conservation (DOC) looks after land that would be considered National and State parks in America,” she said. “The DOC is often criticized that they don’t do enough to look after ‘DOC land.’ When someone complains to me, my response is, ‘It isn’t DOC land, it is our land.’ If you’re concerned about the weeds on that trail, or whatever else is upsetting them, ring the DOC and offer to help. They’d be thrilled to have your support.”
For a person who earned the Heart of the District award in 2006 and received the New Zealand Archaeological Association Public Archaeological Award in 2009, her Wapakoneta roots still run deep in her mindset. Now, she is spreading who she was and who she is in another country.
“My memories of growing up in Wapak are powerful and vivid, so although it may sound trite, Wapak is truly part of me — everyday,” Stevens said. “ I’m proud to describe myself as a small town girl from Wapakoneta, Ohio. That’s who I am and the core of who I always want to be.”