When he was earning his undergraduate degree in business and working in the corporate world, Jeff Stempniewski sometimes thought about finding work that was more meaningful to him.
The chance to find a new career came disguised as bad news—he lost his job. His wife went back to work full-time while he became the stay-at-home parent for six and a half years, raising their three children, now 13, 11 and 10.
With the encouragement of their church, the Stempniewskis had been fostering children, and had adopted their two younger children from the Milwaukee County foster care system.
As he stayed home with the children, “I realized what I wanted to do with my life,” says Stempniewski. “As I was making a difference parenting my own children, I wanted to make a difference in other children’s lives.”
In working with his own children and volunteering as a camp counselor for foster children, he began to recognize the special needs of children who are misunderstood and having a hard time in school, and determined to do more to help those who were struggling. In 2014, he became a substitute teacher and paraprofessional in MPS, working in special education. At the same time, he was coaching his own children’s and other teams, and he found himself talking to many students about concerns beyond sports.
“I really thought I was called to do this,” he says of his decision to come to UWM to earn his master’s degree in special education, focusing on students in the middle childhood/adolescent age group.
“It’s really all about training our kids to be successful,” he says. Many of the students he’s worked with over the years at both the foster camp and in classrooms really need someone to mentor them and encourage them. At the Royal Family Kids camp where he volunteers, for example, he feels he and the other counselors and leaders are really making a difference in children’s lives. “It’s amazing to see what a positive impact we can make in a child’s life for only one week.”
The decision to complete the degree was a challenging one financially for the family, especially after his wife left her teaching job. Since his work helping run the camp is volunteer, he couldn’t count on income from a summer job.
Then in 2018, Stempniewski received the second Love Kindness award. That, along with other scholarships, helped him complete his degree and continue his commitment to helping others. “Sometimes students need help in envisioning a future that really focuses on their fullest potential.”
Mike Robertson, an ordained minister, founded the Love Kindness award in 2017 as a way of honoring and supporting students who were making a difference in the community. He had established a similar award as a positive reaction to offset the need for anti-bullying campaigns. (The first award went to Jacarrie Carr in 2017 for his community work in running an expanding a nonprofit organization to provide shoes to children, and organizing other fundraisers and awareness campaigns.).
Mike is married to Emily Robertson, a UWM alumna, and both have become active supporters of the university. The name Love Kindness comes from a passage in the Bible’s book of Micah, which advises that what the Lord requires of people is to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly.”
Receiving the award was amazing, says Stempniewski. “I’m a dad and a husband and have many things going on. We were down to one income and we didn’t want to take out a lot of student loans. This was unexpected and a great honor and privilege.” He hasn’t met Mike Robertson, but is aware of the story behind the establishment of the award. “It’s pretty awesome to have a big heart like that.”
After graduating and receiving his master’s degree in December 2019, Stempniewski became a middle school special education teacher at St. Augustine Preparatory Academy on Milwaukee’s South Side and continues his focus on helping struggling students succeed.
“I feel I’m called to be a teacher, and I’m here because of Mike Robertson and other donors like him.”
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