Mercy Ships founder “surprised and honored” by nomination

By Dennis Taylor

Don and Deyon Stephens have traveled the globe with their charity providing medical services to the poor.A person who devotes a lifetime to serving others, as Don Stephens has, could only be surprised by such recognition. The Colorado Mesa University alumnus was nominated for one of the most prestigious awards his country can bestow — the Congressional Gold Medal. An honor previously given to others of some note including the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Robert Frost and Rosa Parks.

Though the 2016 Congressional Gold Medal went to Filipino World War II veterans, the nomination helped focus attention on the thousands of professionals who volunteer aboard the hospital ships, Stephens said.

“Being nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal is not something one ever thinks about. I am surprised and honored,” said the 71-year-old humanitarian who founded Mercy Ships in 1978 — a global charity that has operated a fleet of hospital ships worldwide.

Seeds for a life of selfless ambition were planted in Stephens as a youth in Olathe, Colorado, where he recalls watching his mother load the family station wagon with food and clothing to be distributed to the needy.

“Mom had a very gracious way of delivering those goods to neighbors,” he said. “These biblical values were the core values of many early farming and ranching families in western Colorado and they remain visible today.”

In 1963, the 18-year-old Stephens brought those values and a strong work ethic to Mesa, where he developed affection for the faculty, the community of Grand Junction and a certain blue-eyed nursing student, Deyon Green (who alongside Don was honored by CMU as Distinguished Alumni three years ago). Don and Deyon celebrated 50 years of marriage in 2015.

Stephens earned a BA in Biblical Studies from Bethany College in Santa Cruz, Calif., then he and Deyon joined Youth On A Mission, a nondenominational Christian ministry.

“That’s when I began to discover the rest of the world,” said Stephens, who has visited more than 100 nations as a missionary.

“All of the work I’ve done since we started Mercy Ships has been rewarding,” he said of a charity that has performed 80,000 surgeries for the needy over almost four decades. “Even difficult times produce rewards.”

The Stephens, who have four grown children and five grandchildren, remain fond of their roots on Colorado’s West Slope. “It is one of America’s hidden jewels,” he said.